Category: Legends Blog

Puttin' The Rock In The Hoop

Today's Hoop du Jour is presented by Peter Vecsey (brain drizzle), Frank Drucker (author) and Jason Javaherian (researcher).

Later this month (April 22, 1989) marks the 32nd anniversary of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final regular-season game.

The Lord of the Rims went 5-6 from the Fabulous Forum floor for an efficient ten points.

Thus ended his ‘regular season’ stats, the point total a nearly-symmetrical 38,387.

That hasn’t been surpassed since. Though, it says here, one or more prolific pursuer might’ve purloined the perch had an influx of impairments not arisen.

Hell, even ‘Cap’ wasn’t immune.

Let’s go there first.

Coin-flipped from Westwood to Wisconsin, then-Lew Alcindor made his NBA regular-season debut October 18, 1969 at the age of 22…barely 48 hours after the Mets won the World Series.

He went for 29 (and 19 rebounds) in a coming-out party at the expense of the Pistons, a decent start to an ‘irrelevant’, two-decade (six Milwaukee, 14 LA) career.

A deacon of durability, the Centrifugal Force only went AWOL twice of note, missing 17 games (1974-75) largely from unsanctioned bout with a basket stanchion during preseason and 20 (‘77-‘78) after his fist organized a meet-and-greet with Kent Benson’s face in the season opener. 

 At the time, a Lakers’ source informed me Kareem Did Not break his right hand when he coldcocked Benson in retaliation for elbowing him in the solar plexus. I was told it happened in his Milwaukee hotel, the Pfister.

According to the source, Kareem busted up the room, including a television set and table. His injury was sustained during that outburst, which was covered up by team officials and hotel employees. 

Take those 37 games and multiply them by Abdul-Jabbar’s averages during the two seasons (30 and 25-ish, respectively) and we’re at about 1,010 points.

Add those to the aforementioned 38,387 and we’re at a hypothetical 39,487.

...and lest we forget Kareem did not have any season short-sheeted by a strike, lockout, rule changes, pandemic, dog ate his homework, etc.

Playing until 42 wasn’t bad, either.

Cap’s curse takes control from here on in.

Karl Malone (36,928) sits at No. 2 on the hit parade. The Mailman, another who rarely recoiled from his appointed rounds, as in at least 80 games in 17 of his 18 full (the operative word) seasons.

Speed-bumps...a 50-game lockout season (‘98-‘99, he played in 49) and his fairly-forgettable finale--42 ring-chasing games for ‘03-‘04 Lakers, ‘lowlighted’ by a MCL tear and subsequent misdiagnosis just as Malone was bearing down on Kareem

Give Malone his nearly 24 points per game for 32 games during the abbreviated assemblage and that’s an additional 768 (37,696)

I adamantly refuse to remember his Lakers loitering, so there.

Feel free to speculate the stats had common-law court mate John Stockton hung around for another year, perhaps enticing Malone to stay put.

Then again, we could argue that Malone’s penchant to use varying opponents as elbow macaroni should’ve sent him to deserved detention for far longer than one game at a time, seven total. 

Think about it, Malone was suspended a single game and fined 10G for fracturing the face (40 stitches, Dec. 14, 1991, shelving him for three games) of Isiah Thomas with an errant (no such thing) elbow. Today’s sentence would be ten or more games. 

LeBron resides at No. 3 (35,283) though has hit pause at the moment due to a right ankle sprain he probably would’ve shook off overnight a few years ago. His current age is 36 years, 103 days. 

James’ journey began with the chronological straight-outta-high-school advantage. He needs 3,105 points to abdicate Abdul-Jabbar, or about 1½ seasons’ work at a shade over 25 points per game.

...or longer.

...or not at all.

This already-truncated (72 games) season has seen LeBron miss 13 and counting. Reports have him out another three weeks or so. Only two seasons removed from taking his talents to Tinsel Town, and missing gaggles of games with a groin malfunction (I hate when that happens), duress and desire are about to intersect.

No disrespect, but Father Time and AARP have placed courtesy calls.

Still, LBJ may very well overtake Kareem even without full health, as long as it’s nothing crippling. But he must produce a high scoring standard in the next three seasons. The 3,105 can be had even if he averages a mere 41 games a season at 25 ppg. A fourth year, one in which he will turn 40, with the same number of games he has played (41) this year would put him at 39,383, roughly a thousand more than Kareem.

At the same time, nothing is guaranteed at 40, unless you’re Kareem.

Sitting at No. 4 (33,643) is the late, great Kobe Bean Bryant.

As with James, Bryant arrived having taking no college prep courses, leapfrogging from Lower Merion into the unwanting arms...

...of the Charlotte Hornets. Briefly. 

Stymied at the start of his career (seven starts his first two seasons), Kobe’s career began with a DNP against Phoenix. Next, at home versus Minnesota...six minutes, no points.

It wasn’t until the bright lights of New York City when Kobe was able to score. He converted a free throw at the World’s Most Famous Arena, every kid’s dream. 

There were four times in a six-season stretch (‘99-00 to ‘04-‘05) that he maxed out at 68 games played.

Of course, the Lakers were three-peating during that time, but that’s not the issue here.

Bryant’s bandwagon was derailed in mid-April of 2013, tearing an Achilles against Golden State.

Subsequently, he played in just 25 percent (41 of 164) of LA’s games the next two seasons.

If you want to buy the premise of a healthy Bryant playing 70 games in each of those seasons and averaging 27.3 point (his previous full-season number), that’s 3,822 points.

Then subtract his actual 865 points and you get 2,957. Add that to his above total and the ‘new’ figure is 36,600.

Kobe flaunts the greatest disparity in league history—59 points—between his free throw at the Garden and the 60 he manufactured in his go-away game, and it’s guaranteed to be his to forever have and hold. 

Other Non-bandage blockades...A pair of work stoppages (‘98-99, ‘11-12) caused the league to forego 48 (32 & 16) games. Of the 116 games during those seasons, Bryant appeared in 108.

Sitting at 32,292 points, some guy named Jordan resides at Number Five.

As the leader of the six-ring circus, his career has been thoroughly analyzed by those of us in desperate need of thorough analysis.

What if his minutes hadn’t been massaged upon returning (after missing 64 games) from a broken foot three games into his sophomore season?

What if he hadn’t bolted to the Birmingham Barons, thus missing 1¾ after the Bulls’ third title?

What if Chicago management hadn’t made 1997-98 so uncomfortable for Phil Jackson he was compelled to leave?

What if Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had not dismembered The Jordanaires after that second three-peat?

What if His Airness hadn’t hibernated a second time, missing a trio of years before taking a Wiz for two?

Hitting .202 for the Barons in 1994 cost Michael 4,763 points We arrive here using his ‘92-93 season average (32.6) and the average games played (81) in his eight healthy seasons.

The lump sum would have given M. J. close to Kobe’s projection of just about 37,000.

That’s still 1,300 or so points shy of Kareem, but with Jordan, there’s always more to the missive.

Jordan’s second retirement came after he played back-to-back-to-back 82-game seasons, averaging 28.7 points in the Last Dance. 

Had he come back the following season(s)—Chicago clothing or not—an 82-game season at 28.7 would’ve meant 2,357 points, leaving him at the top spot with a thousand-point cushion. 

Wait, there’s an Air Jordan asterisk afloat. The ‘98 lockout would’ve reduced (for this purpose) him to 1,435 points (50 games). 

But to truly do Jordan right, let’s take away the 3,015 points he earned with the Wizards and proceed as if he hadn't stepped away a second time. 

Remember, he put up those numbers after three full seasons absent from action. If we give M. J. the 1,435 in the lockout-shortened year and give him the full year of 82 games (1999-2000), that’s another 2,357 points. 

Jordan then would have hit 37,832 at the end of ‘99-‘00, 555 points shy of the record. 

He then would have needed to play a third season (2000-2001), as opposed to the two closeouts in the District. 

If you’re scoring at home (get help), going off the 28.7 a game, a 37-year-old GOAT would have broken the streak in the twentieth game of the 2000-2001 NBA season. You can look up who “they” played. 

Had Jordan played every game that season (as he did as a 40-year-old his actual last), he would have padded the record by 1,779 points and become the first ever to 40,000. 40,166 to be not-quite-exact.

Speed bumps...Did you not just read this?

Whew, my abacus and I are tired.

As a bonus, current contenders/pretenders...

Kevin Durant (23,530). He’s 32, going through an injury-plagued 13th season after missing all of the last one.

He’d need seven 2,000-point seasons to come close to Kareem. To give you an idea of what that takes, two seasons ago, a healthy Durant played in 78 Golden State games (age 30), averaging 27 points. His point total was 2,027. 

Durant thus would have to play supreme ball over complete seasons, averaging 2,000 a year post-Achilles. A freshly-turned 39-year-old Durant needs to play into that 20th season, score 2,000 (77 games 27 ppg), to sit at 37,530. 

That’s still 800 shy of the Sky Hook.

James Harden (22,022). At 31, he’s 11 months younger than Durant, 1,500 fewer points in one less season. 

In 12 years, Harden has put up beaucoup numbers, making a run at another 2,000-point season now, though may come up short with ten fewer games on the schedule. 

This would be his seventh in a row. He dropped 2,818 points in 2018-2019, winning the MVP the prior season with 627 fewer points. If Harden averaged 2,200 a year the next five (11,000), he’d enter the season turning 38 at 33,000 or so points, needing an additional 5,500 to pass Kareem. 

His current streak of 2,000-plus points certainly gives him a boost, but he will most probably, like many before him, need a miracle in the stretch run.

Did you know?

Most of us view the greatest assist and steals man the league has ever seen to be just that, but John Stockton ranks 52nd on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 19,711 points. 

In 53rd place, with 19,655, Bernard King.

Cooz & Erskine – Tales of Old NY, New England and the Deep South

By Peter Vecsey

   I’ve always liked older people. 

   Old people, actually. 

   Always liked being around them as a kid. Cutting their lawns, shoveling their steps and driveways, walking their dogs, listening to stories about their lives when they were young.

   I’ve always gravitated toward old people. I don’t mean people perceived as being old, like we did as youngsters when we thought men and women in their 30s were ancient. I’m talking about people who needed a ride home after a game or from Queens/Long Island to the city for weekly chemotherapy sessions.

   To this day, I savor nights of hanging out with old timers at the Friar’s Club, Toots Shor’s, the Copacabana, Wally’s. Remember every tale they told; being at Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back homers--an inside-the-park job by Gehrig; seeing Pete Reiser crash into the Ebbets Field outfield wall in pursuit of a line drive; witnessing the warfare between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the first game of a doubleheader at the old Garden; recalling how an infinitely respectful young coach, Bob Knight, after dining with Clair Bee, Nat Holman and Joe Lapchick would give a lift home to whomever needed it.

   Now that I’m authentically old testament, I appreciate the company of citizens my senior that much more, well, their phone voices, anyway. 

   Lately, though, my old-folks fascination has advanced to a peculiar phase. For the last several weeks, I’ve interviewed nothing but nonagenarians, all astonishingly cogent! Not a cane for the brain among them!

   You know about Harold Gifford, age 97, the pilot who saved the Lakers’ team from instant extinction—or even a single injury for that matter—in 1960 when he landed a damaged DC-3 at night in a Carroll, Iowa, cornfield during a snowstorm after five hours and 40 minutes in the air without a radio, heat or lights from the git-go, only a prayer.

   ‘Giff’ and I have communicated a lot recently. I even received a delightful Lacquie Lawson Easter ecard from him. As soon as it’s safe to visit him following my second vaccine shot, the plan is to fly or drive to Minneapolis.

   “If you drive, you can stay with me,” he said. “If you fly, I’ll pick you up at the airport, and you can use my Lexus while you’re here.”

   I’m gonna take a wild stab that the car ain’t old.

                   ****** 

   Another nonagenarian I’m in touch with on a recurring basis is Carl Erskine,  94, the last living member of Roger Kahn’s ‘The Boys of Summer’.

   In the conceivable future, you’ll be reading many memories in this space from the right-handed pitcher, who lives in his hometown of Anderson, Indiana with his high school sweetheart, Betty Palmer. His son, Jimmy, whom doctors early on decided wouldn’t last till 30 due to Down Syndrome, turned 61 last week...

   ...unless I decide to hoard them for a chapter in The Book I’ll Never Finish. 

   OK, OK, I’ll share one. 

   During Erskine’s 12-season career with the Dodgers (122-78, including a pair of no-hitters) the batter he faced most was Stan Musial. 

    “I had a good won-lost record against the Cardinals, but Musial was the most difficult hitter I ever faced. He was a pure hitter, hit to all fields. 

   “Of the 164 at bats, in over 300 innings, I struck him out four times.”

   Erskine said Musial loved telling people, “Carl had a great curveball. Neither he nor I could figure out how I hit him so well.” 

   After they’d retired, Erskine and Musial got acquainted in an unusual way. Both were invited to a private party. Al Hirt, purportedly the world’s meanest trumpet player, was the orchestra leader.  

   When dining at Musial’s St. Louis restaurant, Stan the Man told Erskine he was going on stage to play the harmonica. 

   When Hirt ate there, he often spontaneously entertained guests and Stan wanted to return the favor. 

   “Too bad I didn’t bring my harmonica,” said Erskine, who played the national anthem at roughly half-a-dozen Pacer games over the years. “I’d go up there with you.”

   Musial reached into his pocket and produced a second harmonica. Afterward, Erskine told him, “You’re a lot easier to play with than against.” 

                     *****

   Bob Cousy, age 92, is the third nonagenarian I was exceptionally privileged to go one-on-one with of late, for an hour or so.  

   In my early teens, I’d jump the fence at a nearby schoolyard, and pretend I was both Cousy and Dick McGuire (and mimic Marty Glickman doing the play-by-play), the two greatest eyes of the cutters during the ‘50s and ‘60s, maybe ever. 

   McGuire played for St. John’s, then the Knicks before being traded to the Pistons. After getting cut his freshman and sophomore years, Couz played 1½ seasons at Andrew Jackson High School in Queens. I grew up a few miles away in Holliswood. 

   Universally acclaimed as the Houdini of the Hardwood, Cousy, 15 years older, greatly influenced my feeble around-the-back dribbling, look-away passing style (which habitually pissed off Archbishop Molloy coach, Jack Curran: “Who do you think you are, Bob Cousy!” he’d screech) as he did for thousands upon thousands of other impressionable kids. 

   How could we not want to be like Mr. Basketball? Cooz made First Team All-NBA ten straight years, was the MVP (1957) season, led the league in assists eight consecutive seasons and played on six championships teams during his 13-year career with the Celtics. 

   Naturally, if you’re reading this, you already know everything there is to know about Bob Cousy. Every accomplishment in college (a freshman on the Holy Cross ‘47 NCAA championship) and as a pro is duly documented in books, magazines, newspapers, in stone and sonnets by the best in the sports writing business. The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize author, Dave Anderson, wrote he  majored in Cousy” while they were classmates at HC, where he was sports editor of the school paper. 

   Still, I always feel there’s a story or two to be told no matter how many times someone’s been interviewed. Or maybe there’s more to a story that’s been frequently told. Or maybe there’s a topic interviewers have been reticent to broach. 

   Like Cousy’s lisp. “I talk funny, no doubt about it. I was in my mother’s stomach when my parents migrated from France through Ellis Island. I spoke only French the first five years of my life. 

   “I learned English in the street. Couldn’t pronounce my r’s. I rolled them. Was it a speech impediment? The kids called me ‘Flenchy’. That’s what kids did, trade ethnic insults, part of the street ethos, identifying people by their flaws.

    “I finally learned to live with it. When I moved to New England, the situation got more prominent. New York slang coupled with New York twang. Words came out sounding like goulash. 

   “It was very hard on the ears, especially all those years I worked as an analyst on TV. English teachers would send me ‘Get out of the business’ letters. My articulation was painful to their ears.

   “Well, here I am 92, and I still speak funny. And I don’t give a shit anymore! Never been insecure about it, honestly.” 

   In 1950, Cousy was a rookie, as was teammate Chuck Cooper, one of the NBA’s first three black players—Earl Lloyd and Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton—to enter the league that season. They roomed together.

   “I don’t think anyone knew we were rooming together except Red (Auerbach). We didn’t do it for any political reason. We bonded. We simply had a lot in common. The same interests. Liked the same movies. Liked slow, quiet jazz. Liked the game. 

   Three years later, the Celtics were in Raleigh, NC, for an exhibition game. The hotel wouldn’t let Cooper stay in the same hotel as the team. Auerbach raised a fuss and was prepared to call off the game.

   “We told him not to sweat it,” Cousy said. “Let’s play the game and we’ll catch a train through New York. We’ll see you in Boston.” Red went along with it. A 12:30 AM sleeper was booked.

   Back in those days, Cousy said, “We didn’t snort, inhale, inject funny substances, or take un-prescribed pills. However, we did drink a lot of beer.”

   Cousy and Cooper got to the station a couple hours ahead of time and drank till “we had to take a whiz badly. 

   “Chuck was from Pittsburgh, and thought he was pretty cool. I’m from New York and fancied myself as being sophisticated. But neither of us had ever seen a bathroom sign pointing to ‘colored’ one way and ‘white’ the other way. I teared up. I was ashamed to be white.”

   Cousy and Cooper searched for another relief option. “We went out on the end of the platform. There might’ve been another person at the other end. We peed alongside each other off the platform. A real Rosa Parks moment. I haven’t told that story very often.

   “This was 1953,” Cousy said, laughing. “If some redneck cop had seen us, he could’ve shot both of us and gotten away with it.”

Elgin and the Lakers’ Cornfield Angel

By Peter Vecsey

While the masses clustered to venerate Elgin Baylor’s glorious game in death after decades of habitually omitting him his rightful residence among the elite players in planet history whenever the topic was raised and reasoned, I choose to look at his passing from an incongruent angle. 

My paramount thought upon hearing Boneaylor had transitioned was, if not for pilot Harold Gifford’s inestimable expertise and experience, the 6-5 inflight gymnast, owner of the NBA’s third highest scoring average behind Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan, would’ve perished 61 years ago along with everyone else on a Lakers’ gas-drained, lights-out DC3 charter forced to land during a snowstorm in a Carroll, Iowa, cornfield.

“Yes,” Gifford concurred when contacted at his home outside Minneapolis. “I had something to do with Baylor completing his legacy and enjoying everlasting fame. But I benefited, too.”

Gifford is 97, a categorically coherent 97. Numerous times he put me to shame with his fine-tuned faculty to name names, only occasionally pausing to dig deep into the distant past.  

“I’m still perking, and I still have all my original parts,” he responded to my compliment about his impeccable memory bank. 

During several extended conversations we’ve had over the last few days, he bombarded me with dozens and dozens of details of that five-hour and 40-minute scramble that began in distress upon takeoff from St. Louis after a loss to the Hawks en route to Minneapolis, and came within Gifford’s ripened reflex of calamity when he scarcely avoided treetops. 

“Elgin was a very private person,” Gifford said when asked what, if anything, he recollected about Baylor. “I was never able to contact him over the years.”

Gifford does remember him being very apprehensive about flying. Remembered him coming into the cockpit and asking how high they were flying, or where they were. Chicago, or some such distinguished place was pointed out, and he’d return to his seat. 

Was that something Baylor often did? 

“Frequently,” Gifford replied. “That night we were up 17,000 feet, I didn’t hear anything from him.” 

There were usually two pilots for each charter, though there were three on that fright flight. Vernon Ullman was the captain; more about his suspect role later. Jim Holznagel, 21 and fresh from receiving his pilot’s license--now 82, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska--was ‘working’ his first trip for Gopher Airlines. He sat in the cabin’s jump seat. He did not get paid. It was a get-the-lay-of-the-skies free trip. 

What a score!

If the pilots wanted to see a Lakers’ game on the road, they were given team equipment bags to carry into arenas to make them look official. They’d sit in back of the players, where flocks of team assistant coaches currently perch three rows deep.

Gifford remembers being behind the Lakers’ bench in the old Madison Square Garden watching Baylor dribbling up the sideline. “Just before he shot, his head would slightly swivel right or left as if he he had a twitch. 

“The guys would kid him, saying Elgin developed it from cheating in card games,” Gifford said.  

“I don’t remember too many distinctive things about Baylor, but I do vaguely recall him outside the plane in the deep snow that night looking up at the stars and praying, thanking God.”

A seamless segue, I submit, for another overriding thought of mine following the news Baylor had passed at 86.  Think about it; if not for Gifford’s unruffled bravado to take control of a terrifying situation when the captain’s capacity to make decisions malfunctioned (see below) the Lakers’ franchise would’ve very possibly ceased to exist. 

True, the NBA probably would’ve conducted a dispersal draft involving the league’s remaining seven teams to restock the Lakers. Nonetheless, the talent would’ve dramatically lacked consequence to justify their relocation to Los Angeles the next season, the first team to go farther west than St. Louis. Moreover, the reconstructed Lakers would not have had the appeal to transform people unfamiliar with professional basketball into paying customers.

Don’t tell Jerry West (a rookie in 60-61) I wrote that.

     Who Knows? Minus the Lakers, winners of five titles  (49-54), the struggling NBA may have become such a Humpty Dumpty league it might’ve folded.

                                         *****

Four years ago—nine after I’d written a piece about the Lakers’ near fatal expedition--I received an email from Harold Gifford, whom I had not interviewed; I’d focused strictly on learning players’ accounts. 

Peter

 I was co-pilot on the Lakers flight in 1960. Jim Holznagel was the third pilot. He and I are still alive and well. There had been an avalanche of misinformation about the flight so we decided to attempt to set the record straight by publishing a book, "The Miracle Landing", available on Amazon and Kindle. If you care to hear our story my # is … and Jim's is…. Jeanie Buss wrote a forward for the book and we have remained in contact. Jeanie often suggests the story would make a compelling movie. Several years after the landing, Verne Ullman died of a brain tumor. It has been suspected that his erratic behavior prior to and during the flight had been a result of the lingering problem. 

As illustrated in the book it was you that ignited the spark that revived the story. I have been wanting to talk with you for a long time. I am nearly 93 and no longer do I buy green bananas. 

   Harold Gifford  

                                      *****

    Before delving into the ‘avalanche of misinformation’, first the column I wrote in the New York Post February 8, 2009…  

                                       *****

    CHARLES Lindbergh carved out his hallowed highland in aviation history by becoming the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger awed mankind on Jan. 15 by belly-flopping U.S. Airways Flight 1549 onto the Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board.

Forty-nine years before, almost to the day, retired Lt. Col. Vernon Ullman, who saw action in World War II and Korea, and co-pilot Harold Gifford set down a twin-engine DC-3 in heavy snow in a Carroll, Iowa, cornfield.

Who?

The pilots lacked a radio, defroster and lights and had almost no visibility. Ten Minneapolis Lakers, nine others in their traveling party (including four children, one of whom was head coach Jim Pollard’s 11-year-old son, Jack) and three crew members rushed completely unscathed from the utterly undamaged aircraft.

Say, what?

In late December, I was in Los Angeles interviewing Elgin Baylor about his extraordinary playing career when suddenly he swerved into an astonishing account of his Minneapolis Lakers team’s near fatal landing during his second NBA season.

A few weeks later, Sullenberger makes the save of the century.

Hold on; not so fast.

No disrespect, but compared to what Ullman and Gifford accomplished and the five-hour-40-minute ordeal their human cargo suffered, the US Airways’ matter-of-minutes West Side miracle was for the birds.

On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 17, 1960, despite Baylor’s 43 points, the 13-20 Lakers lost, 135-119, to the Hawks in St. Louis.

“We were a picture of instability,” recalled Tom Hawkins, a rookie on that Lakers team.

     They were the franchise’s stepchildren, having inherited the unpleasant legacy of the league’s original dynasty – George Mikan, Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, Whitey Skoog and Pollard – that won five titles from 1948-54.

“We had some good names (Baylor, Hot Rod Hundley, Frank Selvy, Slick Leonard, Rudy LaRusso, Dick Garmaker, Larry Foust, Jim Krebs, Boo Ellis) and some good reps,” Hawkins said. “But people weren’t buying this interim unit. Everything was in upheaval.”

     Lakers owner Bob Short, former undersecretary of the Navy and president of Admiral Transit, a trucking firm, was in dire financial straits. At the time, the furthest west the eight-team NBA had expanded was St. Louis; Short was angling to move to Los Angeles. He did so the very next season and was drawing capacity crowds (14,505) in no time flat.

    On Jan. 2, 1960, Lakers coach John Castellani resigned; he’d coached Baylor two years in college at Seattle. The previous season, he had replaced John Kundla, the brains behind the empire. Shaking off a 33-39 mark to reach the playoffs, the Lakers upset the Hawks in six in the Western Division finals, only to get swept by the Celtics in the championship round.

  “We drove to Game 4 in cars packed with our belongings in order to get a head start to where we lived during the offseason,” Slick Leonard said, giving a pragmatic shrug.

   Pollard took over as coach of the 1959-60 Lakers when they were 11-15. His coaching column read 2-5 when the Lakers –minus LaRusso, home with an ulcer – arrived at St. Louis airport. Due to a light snow and icy conditions, departure was delayed several hours. During that interruption, referee Earl Strom opted for another means of transportation to Minneapolis. 

   Jim Krebs, a good guy but swathed in doom and gloom, told teammates from time to time he wouldn’t live beyond 33, Dick Garmaker recalled. Baylor and Hawkins couldn’t remember Krebs without an Ouija board. In the terminal dining area, the board predicted the Lakers would have a plane accident. “He kept telling us we should not fly that day,” they harmonized.

   At 8:30 p.m., Short’s DC-3-owned craft--cheaper to fly than commercial, decades before it dawned on the Pistons and Bulls to charter--left St. Louis in light snowfall bound for Minneapolis. About five minutes after takeoff, the specially-rigged card table that accommodated eight players was erected in the front aisle.

  “We thought someone was fooling around because the lights began flashing from bright to dim, and then went off altogether,” Baylor said, allowing, “We were in the dark.” Both generators had shut down from overuse while grounded. Everything electrical was lost.

  “The only sound was the whir of two spinning props,” Hawkins recounted.

   Devoid of verbal direction from the control tower, it was impossible to return to the heavily trafficked, jet-busy airport. So the plane climbed to 8,000 feet to escape the snow and headed for home. After 15 minutes, the rapidly intensifying storm overtook and encircled the plane. All optical contact vanished.

 Flying by a manual compass, the aircraft ascended higher and higher in an effort to climb above the blizzard. Then even that instrument failed; the wind and weather caused the compass to gyrate madly. Taking a bearing on the North Star, Ullman and Gifford were obliged to rely exclusively on celestial navigation. Judging by the twists and turns, the pilots apparently were disoriented.

   Because a DC-3 is non-pressurized, it should never go beyond 15,000 feet. Exceeding that altitude numerous times resulted in gasping for breath and the children becoming ill. The floor began to freeze. Thin blankets and winter coats provided futile warmth.

  “It was horrible!” Hawkins said. “The cold and the fear and the lack of oxygen triggered uncontrollable twitching and constriction in the throat. Yet, amazingly, nobody panicked, not even the kids.”

 Hawkins and Leonard recoiled in the last two seats. “I’m a rookie and scared as hell,” Hawkins said, “thinking to myself, ‘This is what I wanted my whole life, to play pro basketball, and here I am flying blind to who knows where.’

“I asked Slick if he thought we were going to make it. He said, ‘Don’t worry, man, we’ll come out of this OK.’ He was very reassuring. He was my mentor and was like that, very positive. Meanwhile, we were bobbing and weaving. I don’t think I believed him.”

That probably was because Hawkins saw the pilots don goggles and stick their heads out the small side panels in order to see. Ice encased the front windows. It was 12:30 a.m. or thereabouts on Jan. 18. They’d been airborne four plus hours when one engine began failing. The pilots decided to come down, but could find no bottom to the storm clouds. According to an altimeter they read by a flashlight held by Jim Holznagel, they had dropped to 200 feet.

Ullman, his face and hands frostbitten, came out of the cockpit and told the passengers there was roughly 30 minutes of fuel remaining. The plane had to be taken down lower still in order to look for a place to land. The lights of a town below abruptly lit up the sky. The Carroll police had phoned residents, the team later learned, and asked them to turn on their lights in the hope the pilots would see the airport. Ullman and Gifford never knew one existed. They had no idea they were in Carroll, Iowa.

At least once, maybe more, according to various descriptions of subsequent close encounters with catastrophe, the plane unexpectedly veered upward to avoid a blacktopped road, a grove of trees, hot wires and an oncoming 18-wheeler.

“Finally,” Ullman was quoted in the Carroll Daily Times Herald, “we spotted this corn field and decided to set down there because the standing corn showed up dark against the snow background, and that gave us visual reference.”

Both pilots had farming backgrounds. Gifford had flown crop dusters. Knowing there were no ditches or rocks and that the field was in neat rows, the prevailing feeling was it’d be the best option to land. After circling twice, Ullman rolled the flaps out and throttled down to an airspeed of 70 knots, toward a slight incline in the standing corn.

Frank Selvy had a 4 1/2 month-old girl, Leslie, and a wife, Barbara. “I was thinking this is a helluva way to go,” he told me.

“I was petrified, but I was afraid to show it because the kids were so calm,” Garmaker admitted when contacted.

“I don’t think everyone was as scared as you’d think,” Boo Ellis claimed.

“We still had a chance. The plane was not out of control. Our biggest concerns were low fuel and not being able to see.”

Yup, other than that, the landing figured to be a breeze.

Baylor told me he left his seat and positioned himself on the floor in the rear, hooking his arms and legs around seat bottoms on both sides. “I’d read the back was the safest place to be,” he said. “By then my fear of dying was gone. If I was going to go, then let it be. But I really felt we were going to be fine.”

The emergency landing, on a farm owned by Elmer Steffes, occurred around 1:40 a.m.

“We practically pancaked in and the plane rolled about 100 yards after we touched down.” Gifford told Stew Thornley, author of “Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers.”

Inadvertently, the tail wheel had hooked on the top strand of a barbed wire fence, helping the plane to stop. “It was like landing on an aircraft carrier,” said Gifford who flew many missions during World War II.

For more than a few seconds there was total silence.

“When we realized we were safe we erupted in cheers,” Hundley passionately recalled. “We jumped out the back and were like little kids. We threw snowballs at each other and the pilots.”

Upon landing, Garmaker said, Hundley jumped up and shouted, “I live to love again!”

Hundley claimed Garmaker, an offseason insurance agent, sold teammates polices during the flight.

“I wish I were that clever,” Garmaker said, laughing long and loud. “It’s not true. But, please, leave it in; don’t take that part out.”

One of the first people the Lakers stumbled upon when their feet hit the knee-deep snow was the town undertaker. “I’m not shucking you,” said Hawkins. “The guy declared, ‘Thought I had some business tonight, boys.’”

Fire engines, police cars, trucks, and autos lined the field. The 22 passengers and crew were transported to the Burke Motor Inn, owned and managed by Robert A. Wright. Last to leave the site, Pollard rode up front and upright in the hearse.

On the coffee shop placemat was a map and a picture of an ear peeled back. In bold letters it proclaimed Iowa the Tall Corn State. Hundley boasts two placemats (now laminated) signed by team members and the two pilots. Hawkins has one, but isn’t sure where it might be.

There were no telephones in the rooms, so Pollard and his players lined up in front of three pay booths outside the office. Loved ones needed to be notified what had happened, and that everything was copasetic.

Dubbed “Desert Head” by Hundley because he was balding, Larry Foust was known for imbibing a few after games and telling cockamamie tales to his wife, Joanie.

In the adjacent booth, Hawkins overheard Foust say, “We just had a forced landing in an Iowa cornfield.”

On the other end, Joanie reportedly grumbled: “I don’t think that’s the least bit funny. Call me back when you’re sober.” Then she hung up.

Foust turned to Hawkins and said, “Ah, would you mind asking Doris to call Joanie and tell her we really did land in an Iowa cornfield.”

Foust was traded the year of the crash to St. Louis. He played a dozen seasons, averaging 13.7 points and 9.8 rebounds. Drinking and smoking took its toll; he died in 1984 of a heart attack at age 56.

Pollard, the initial Kangaroo Kid years before Billy Cunningham inherited the nickname, and a Hall of Famer, was 71 when he passed on Jan. 22, 1993. He played eight years (13.2, 5.7) and coached the Chicago Packers (18-62) after being short-circuited (14-25) by the Lakers.

LaRusso played 10 seasons (15.6, 9.4) and was 67 when he died on July 9, 2004, from Parkinson’s disease.

Krebs retired (averaging 8.9 and 6.2 for seven seasons) after the 1963-64 campaign. He died May 6, 1965, three years younger than his self-fulfilling prophecy. Asked by a neighbor to help with a half-fallen tree, they cut it and leaned it against the house. As Krebs walked away a gust of wind blew it down, crushing his chest and skull.

Ellis, who had been a freshman at Niagara when Hubie Brown was a senior, played two seasons (5.1, 5.2) for the Lakers. He continued to compete in organized tournaments (winning senior Olympic, national, state and sectional titles) until almost 70, when he moved in with his daughter three years ago in Indianapolis.

Selvy, who’d scored 100 points in a game for Furman, hung tough (10.8, 3.7 and 2.8 assists) for 11 seasons. He fathered three bonus babies after Leslie, has nine grandchildren and is raising the 13-year-old in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Leonard played seven seasons (9.9, 2.9, 3.3) and coached the ABA Pacers to three titles. In his 24th year as the team’s radio color commentator, he’s committed to one last full schedule.

Hundley’s 8-season tenure as a Laker (8.4, 3.3, 3.4) was surpassed by a broadcasting career, five with New Orleans, 35 with Utah that earned him the Curt Gowdy award. With nothing left to accomplish, he’s retiring to Arizona at season’s end.

Hawkins played 10 seasons (8.7, 6.0) before becoming an NBC announcer, both nationally and locally in Los Angeles. His jazz show is rated No. 1 in the country and No. 1 for its time slot. He serves on boards, consults and does speaking engagements. “If it moves, I talk to it,” he said.

Baylor was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 after averaging 27.4, 13.5 and 4.3 over 14 seasons. Only Wilt Chamberlain’s boasted more extravagant statistics. Enough said!

Garmaker (13.3, 4.2, 3.2 in seven seasons) lives in Tulsa, Okla. Ten days after the landing, he was traded to the Knicks for $25,000 and Ray Felix, allowing Short to make payroll that month. Some 20 years later, Garmaker’s real estate company was buying apartments in St. Paul, Minn. With the weekend looming, the guy who needed to close the deal left the city for home.

Told by a secretary her boss would arrive there in 45 minutes and to call him then, Garmaker inquired, where he’d be calling? “Carroll, Iowa,” she replied.

When the two men finished their business, Garmaker asked: “By the way, do you remember hearing about a plane that went down 20 years ago in your area?”

“I sure do! Jeepers, you landed in my cornfield!” Steffes blurted.

No one’s quite sure exactly when, but the Lakers honored the Ullman, whose wife, Eva Olofson, was the plane’s lone stewardess, at a subsequent home game. Short presented him with a plaque that cost about $15. Its inscription: “To Colonel Vernon Ullman: May You Have Eternal Safe Landings.”

For their part, the players contributed $50 apiece, in those days, the price of a gift of life.

I’m unsure what’s more mind-blowing, the achievement of the two pilots or the FAA suspending Ullman’s license following its investigation. Prior to landing, the pilots debated whether the wheels should be up or down.

Regulations specified a belly flop in such a situation, which very well may have precluded the wheels from hitting the wire.

Ullman ordered wheels down instead to avert skidding into a potential highway or other unknown complications. The next day, the team bus to Minneapolis passed the cornfield. Around 75 yards in front of the ‘unsullied’ plane was a steep ditch to disaster.

Less than a week later, several hundred people watched as a bulldozer cleared the cornfield to stubble. The FAA had commissioned another pilot to fly the DC-3 back home. Ullman fought that command decision. Again he prevailed against all odds.

“I put it in there,” he said. “I’m going to take it out.”

Ullman died of a brain tumor in March 1965.

                                     *****

As it turned out, I only knew peripheral details about what actually happened in the cockpit before and during those critical minutes leading up to the laser landing. Had not Gifford reached out to me, I’d still have it distorted all these years later.

For now, let’s deal exclusively with the core of the crisis, as Gifford is alternately ascending and descending to escape the ice, or get below the cloud of snow in hopes of spotting a judiciously safe place to put it down. 

Ullman had been a Lt. Colonel in the Navy. Gifford had been a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, flying fighter jets, then a B29 during World War II. His plane flew overhead the U.S. S. Missouri while Japan signed its surrender on Tokyo Bay, Sept 2, 1945.

Despite their worsening, directionless, flying-on-fumes circumstances, Ullman wanted to continue to find an airport. Gifford wanted to get as low as possible to find an improvised L.Z. Holznagel manned the flashlight and read the altimeter to inform Gifford how many feet they were above sea level.  

Holznagel let Gifford know when they were at 1000 feet, then 700, then 600. Abruptly, he alerted Gifford they were at 100 feet. 

“You don’t have far down to go when you’re at 100 feet,” he notified me yesterday, chuckling.

“Suddenly, there were trees right in front of my face, and I pulled it up. We were right back in the soup. That definitely gave me an extra blast of adrenalin. 

“You know, Peter, strange thing, I’d been flying tours of 30 days at a time not long before. I’d flown planes twice as big as a DC3 throughout Alaska, Panama, Puerto Rico, Bermuda and Newfoundland, and I was always able to find the bottom of the clouds in any kind of weather. I didn’t have a lot of fear until those trees. 

“However, I was still l confident in what I was doing. I saw a farm light. I had dodged down for more visibility, and saw barns, silos and windmills. The moon was bright. The snow lighted up the night and we could see ahead. I said, ‘Boy, if there’s anyone up there overlooking us, I could sure use some help. A little later, I saw a Pabst beer sign, and I gave a little thank you above. And then all of a sudden, the town lit up after we’d circled ten times.” 

Ullman wanted to touch down on a road they found. Gifford was opposed, because he couldn’t see the power lines. Ullman thought he saw a lake and wanted to land on it. Gifford had spotted a cornfield he felt would provide a cushion. 

“I’d flown a crop duster as a kid. I knew the land was flat and there were no rocks, and the stalks wouldn’t hurt the plane.”

Ullman insisted they land on the road. Gifford felt for the cornfield made more sense. Pollard spent a lot of time in the cockpit throughout the flight. He told Ullman to listen to Gifford. 

A couple players claimed the plane bounce landed. It did not. Hawkins stated it was the smoothest landing he’d ever experienced. 

“We held off telling the way it was for years because we didn’t want to embarrass Vernon and his wife,” Gifford said. “After they died and left no children, we felt it was time to tell what happened. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

On March 7, Holznagel visited Gifford in Minnesota.

“Every time we get together, we give each other big hugs and thanks for saving our respective lives.”

                                         ****

     Last night, I received another email from Gifford: 

    This may not be of interest but in 1937 my brother, Quentin 4 years older than I, had joined the Navy and served on the Battleship, USS Oklahoma. In 1940 I left high school to work on a dairy farm due to the severe depression. That summer, Quentin was home on leave and before returning to his ship, he visited me at work, and asked me to promise I'd return to school, and work hard, and when leaving the Navy he promised to find a way for us to attend college together. I had kept my promise. From then on we were in frequent contact ,and he proudly followed my football and academic activities. Come Pearl Harbor, Quentin went down with the Oklahoma and I KEPT my promise. My hard work had resulted in passing tests to become an Air corps Cadet and left for duty Feb 3 before graduating. I became a pilot and officer in 1944. These events led to a career in Aviation I would not have had if I had not honored my promise to Quentin. My point is, had these events not occurred who would have saved the Lakers? Talk to ya later. Giff

Coach Albeck - Forever Stan-din Tall

By Peter Vecsey

Almost instantaneously upon taking over the ABA Denver Rockets from Joe Belmont 13 games into the 1970-71 season, Stan Albeck got initiated into the unstable head-coaching fraternity and its susceptibility to the impulsive, repulsive, compulsiveness of others.

The profession’s unadulterated wackiness, whims and whammies would surface soon enough.

Spencer Haywood, by far the ABA’s most dominant player and already one of the game’s most rousing above-the-cylinder contortionists at the tender age of 20, was withholding his services due to a contract dispute with the Ringsby trucking family.

Out of Detroit’s Pershing High School, and two years at the University of Detroit, the 6-9 funky forward had signed a long-term pro contract the previous season for $1.9 million thanks to Al Ross, a hot-spit young Beverly Hills lawyer/agent from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Ross pushed hard to gain a landmark court decision that essentially decreed that a certified “hardship case” couldn’t be deprived of his livelihood, date of birth notwithstanding.

Haywood’s winning streak continued when he captured the MVP and rookie awards. He also polished off the scoring and rebounding titles, averaging 30 points and 19.5 boards during the regular season, 36.7 and 19.8 in the playoffs. Instead of being everlastingly grateful to have such superiority on their side, though, Bill Ringsby and son, Don, attempted to devalue the deal, insisting they be permitted to invest his money in a fashionable 10-year plan, er, scam.

Ross warned them, “Either honor it, or we’re out of here.”

Pre-Christmas negotiations to resolve the matter appeared to be going well when the Ringsbys requested a brief recess. They walked into an adjoining room and accidentally (on purpose?) left the door slightly ajar.

“There’s nothing I hate worse than dealing with a n….. and a Beverly Hills Jew,” Ross overheard old man Ringsby blurt – a decadent remark passed down through the decades. Several days ago, Ross, 68 and still in no danger of being downgraded from a hurricane to a storm, confirmed the bigoted remark word for word.

Haywood jumped to the NBA six weeks later, struttin’ his stuff (33 games that season) for Sam Schulman’s Seattle SuperSonics. The Ringsbys were made richer by $1 million in compensation, paid by Schulman. Albeck, meanwhile, learned that a coach is only as good (27-44) as his talent-- minus the league’s mightiest magnet.

The ABA was out of luck and, come the end of that season, Albeck was out of work. Not until eight years later, following shifts as an assistant under Hubie Brown (Kentucky Colonels), Wilt Chamberlain (San Diego Conquistadors) and Jerry West (Lakers), did he get another chance controlling the joy stick.

Bill Fitch, the Cavaliers’ original coach since 1970-’71, had quit after the team again hit the skids in ’78-’79. Owner Nick Mileti offered Albeck the job. He could’ve had more than one year, but preferred to prove himself to his employer before entering into anything long-term. His first move was to call on his good friend Chamberlain, whom he’d covered for during most practices during the ’73-’74 season (37-47), losing to Utah 4-2 in the Western semis.

“He was this close to coming back,” Albeck said haltingly, his speech (but not his legs or travel throughout the world) still limited by a stroke suffered at 2:35 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001 in the Raptors locker room in Toronto.

As I sat with Stan and Phyllis, his wife for 53 years (they met at an Illinois high school tourney in 1949), during an extended visit to their San Antonio home last week, he held up two fingers, one millimeter apart.

Chamberlain, 43 at the time, hadn’t played since the ’72-’73 season, threatening to come out of retirement each subsequent year for years to come.

“I told him I just wanted him to rebound,” recalled Albeck, now 74. “He said, ‘The hell with that, I want to shoot threes.’ I told him, ‘Fine, shoot all the threes you want.’ ”

Cavs GM Ron Hrovat, a basketball neophyte, was entrusted with the responsibility of hand-delivering the contract to Chamberlain’s palatial home in Bel Air. Nobody was there when Hrovat arrived, so he stuck the contract in the gate. By the time Chamberlain showed up, the papers were strewn around his yard.

Chamberlain immediately got Albeck on the phone. “Forget it, Little Man,” he said, using his endearing nickname for Albeck. “I can’t play for a team that handles its business like that.”

In spite of such negligence and the disappointment that Walt Frazier (three games and out; the lone Cavalier not to play in the opener) had reached the end of his career, you’d have to say Albeck was fairly successful that season; the Cavs finished 37-45 and made the playoffs.

But you would have to overlook Albeck’s orchestration of a trade with the Lakers that secured Don Ford (known more for marrying Sharon Tate’s sister than for anything meaningful between the lines) and a 1980 No. 1 pick (Chad Kinch) in exchange for Butch Lee and an ’82 first-round pick that would be translated into James Worthy. 

Ouch!!!

Before that deal, and before the Cavs were sold to the buffoonish Ted Stepien, Mileti rewarded Albeck with a three-year contract. Indians GM Gabe Paul had warned the Albecks that Stepien was loco in the sombrero when they bumped into each other that summer at an Angels game in Anaheim. On their first day back in Cleveland, they happened to hear Stepien tell radio host Pete Franklin his first order of business was to renegotiate Albeck’s contract.

The Spurs bailed them both out. That September, GM Bob Bass, who’d left Denver just before Albeck got there, offered Stan a three-year deal. Nothing like a simonized superstar, George Gervin, to bring out a man’s slickest strategy. In three years, Albeck amassed 153 wins against 93 losses, once earning the NBA’s top coaching honor.

Albeck completed his head coaching tour in Chicago. Bulls GM Jerry Krause recruited him away from the Nets (at the cost of a second round pick), following a successful two-year stint there. 

That ’85-’86 campaign was basically a bummer, polluted by poor play, bad luck and an injury to Jordan that shelved him for all but 18 games, compounded by his acrid frustration that his minutes were fiercely restricted by owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The toxic cloud lifted a little in the first round. Despite getting swept 3-0 by the Celtics, the Bulls, and Air Jordan’s rapidly multiplying supporters, salvaged their sanity, if not the season, when M.J. averaged 43.7. His 63-point eruption even prompted Larry Legend to gawk and gush.

Most observers believe Albeck was fired for ticking off Jordan by removing him from winnable games, as per instructions from above, after he’d played the designated time. Truth is, Krause got angry because Albeck stopped taking his incessant calls at home during the last two months. Albeck didn’t discoverer ‘consultant’ Doug Collins had tailgated the team the last few weeks on the road, until the day before being dismissed.

When asked for his most treasured memory of his coaching career, Albeck didn’t hesitate, Jordan’s 63. Second place also went to Jordan, for nicknaming Krause “Crumbs.”

Albeck’s next cherished memory was the Nets’ 1984 upset of the defending-champion 76ers, in the opening round. Each team won twice on the road. The deciding fifth game was on the Sixers’ home court.

“They are not going to win [the series] in Philadelphia,” Julius Erving proclaimed. “You can mail in the stats.”

“Oooh,” Phyllis Albeck cooed. “Those were fighting words to Stan. He really used them.”

U.P.S. did not deliver. Dr. J capped a substandard series with 6-of-16 shooting and four turnovers. Micheal Ray Richardson, on the other hand, notched 24 points to give New Jersey its first NBA playoff series victory, 101-98.

Ever!

Whoops, we have another winner, suddenly perked up Phyllis, as perky as they come.

“I should have reminded you of the Cavs’ quadruple-overtime win over the Lakers with Kareem and Magic and Nixon and all the rest.” 

So many Cavs fouled out that Bill Willoughby had to play center and actually blocked one of Kareem’s sky hooks in the fourth OT, she distinctly recalled. Right after that, Kareem got called for his sixth foul with about a minute and a half left. Mike Mitchell won it with two free throws and Cleveland prevailed by one.

“I think the refs were getting tired and wanted the game over!” Phyllis deduced. 

The Albecks have Joe Tait’s play-by-play on cassette and when they take long auto trips (Stan is always putting on the imaginary brake, Phyllis says, which drives her crazy), they listen to the game and enjoy reliving every detail.

That victory was particularly sweet, Phyllis stressed, because Jerry Buss paid no attention to Albeck as a coaching candidate when West left the sidelines.

“That was so early in Stan’s career, we forget about that as one of the memorable moments,” Phyllis said. “Like picking the first girl you see, and then you see a dozen more beautiful come along … but the pick has already been made.”

By Esteban Abed at Interbasquet (Argentina)

With the celebration of Latin Nights in the NBA, we review the career of “Ro”, a key figure in the 80’s with the Dallas Mavericks and the first Latino player in the history of the league to have his jersey retired.

Rolando Antonio Blackman was born on February 26, 1959 in Panama City, capital of the Republic of Panama. Years later, his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Rolando spent his childhood.

Between 1977 and 1981 the Panamanian played for the University of Kansas State, becoming the third highest scorer in the history of the Wildcats with a total of 1844 points (averaging 15.2 points per game) and currently occupies the ninth spot on the all-time assists list  - 320 (2.7 apg).

He had the highest honors during the 1980 when he was named top player in the Conference (formerly the Big Eight Conference, today known as the Big Twelve Conference), which also earned him All-America honors.

A Nationalized citizen, he was selected to the USAB men's basketball team to play in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but the U.S. boycott, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, prevented "Ro" from having his Olympic experience.

The following year, Blackman was selected ninth overall in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks -  where he shone for 11 seasons.

The 1.98-meter shooting guard averaged nearly 20 points per game playing for the Mavs, in 6 of the 11 seasons, led the team to the playoffs, reaching the first Conference Finals in Dallas history in 1988, sweeping 4- 0 to Houston Rockets in the first round. In the semifinals they beat the Denver Nuggets 4-2, but fell in the Conference Final 4-3 to the Los Angeles Lakers.

He was a 4 time All-Star (1985-87 and 1990), notching a total of 71 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in those All-Star Games.

In 1992 he was traded to the New York Knicks, where he played 2 seasons and despite not having the individual success shown with the Mavs, Blackman reached his second Conference Finals in 1993, falling 4-2 against the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

In 1994, Rolando played in his first and only NBA Finals where he came very close to getting the championship ring.  The Knicks led the series against the Rockets 3-2, but Houston's prevailed 84-86 in Game 6 with a masterful Hakeem Olajuwon (30 points, 10 rebounds) covered John Starks on the last play, avoided overtime and forced a Game 7, where Houston would again beat Houston New York (90-84) and go on to be crowned NBA champions for the first time in its history.

Blackman continued his career as a basketball player in Europe, playing the 1994/95 season for AEK Athens in Greece. The following year he arrived at the Italian Lega, winning 2 titles with Olimpia Milano in that same season (Lega 96 and Italian Cup). The last year of his career as a professional player he played in France, with CSP Limoges.

In 2000 he returned to the Dallas Mavericks, where he served as Don Nelson's assistant.

In that season, the franchise immortalized him by retiring his number 22 jersey, becoming the first Latin American player in NBA history to have his jersey number retired.

Personal records in the NBA.

- 17,623: the total number of points with which he ended his NBA career between Dallas and the Knicks, averaging 18 points per game with a 49% effectiveness in shooting from the field, 84% in free throws and 34% from 3-point range.

-16,643: is the total points playing for Dallas, ranking second in franchise history behind Dirk Nowitzki with 31,560 (6th highest scorer in NBA history).

-865: Number of games he played consecutively in the NBA (all with Dallas between 1981 and 1990).

- 715: total steals in his 13 seasons.

- 46: On March 12, 1986 most points in a game with 46, in a 120-127 Dallas  loss against the Sacramento Kings.

-11: On February 22, 1987, he had his most assists in a  game with 11, in addition to recording triple-double (25 points, 10 rebounds) in a 95-121 victory over Golden State Warriors.

- 5: Number of times he finished with 11 rebounds: vs. Indiana Pacers (1983), Houston Rockets (1983), San Diego Clippers (1983), Denver Nuggets (1984) and Phoenix Suns (1986);

- 5: most steals in a game, vs. Atlanta Hawks in a 110-117 Mavs victory.

Gone But Not Forgotten

By Peter Vecsey

For years, Dutch Garfinkel and I were part of a regular dinner group –– Larry Doby, who broke the American League color barrier, Fuzzy Levane, Larry ‘The Scout’ Pearlstein) hosted by then Nets’ owner, Joe Taub.

     Dutch and Fuzzy were teammates on pro basketball’s original Fantasy Team, Les Harrison’s 1946 BAA champion Rochester Royals —Bob Davies, Al Cervi, Red Holzman, (Browns QB) Otto Graham (catcher), Del Rice and (The Rifleman) Chuck Connors.

     Restaurants should’ve charged an entertainment tax. Every meal was a skyscraper of stories. Like Harrison discovering Levane wasn’t Jewish and asking him to find one. Fuzzy found two, Holzman and Dutch. How much extra did players receive for winning the title? They threw a blanket out on the court after the clincher and the fans went to their pockets for roughly $200. 

     Shortly before Dutch, 95, passed, we spoke for the last time. He admonished me for retiring too (69) young in 2012. After a long pause, he sorrowfully wondered, “Who’s going to write my obituary?” 

    From July, 30, 2013, through April 30, 2014, the NBA lost 16 family members. No expanse of writing experience provides the know how to express how privileged I feel being entrusted with accentuating their positives, discovering untold stories, and being so fortuitous to put to rest Dutch’s fear of dying forgotten.

     What were these people best known for? Proudest accomplishments? How do their wives, children, teammates, friends and opponents want them remembered? The hope is to cut to the core of the extravagant character and unreasonable will to win and live that connects and cements the 16. 

     Ossie Schectman (March 30, 1919--July 30, 2013): Memorialized as the guy who scored the first two points in NBA history for the Knicks in Toronto. Captaining each team—Tilden High School, Long Island University, Knicks--he played for is an achievement often talked about with his two sons, Stew and Peter. An injury while diving for a loose ball, unintentionally mangled by Max Zaslofsky, kept his career from advancing beyond his rookie year. By all accounts, he was the team’s best player at the time. 

     Ossie’s athletic prowess, which carried over to softball, where he continued to dive for loose balls, on cement to beat a throw, awed Peter, 12, who used to stop bouncing the ball 250 feet away and marvel at his father’s fluidity, fierceness and fielding skills as a hard-hitting third baseman. 

   However, “just as profound to me, and in my reality much more important, my dad never pushed me in basketball, allowing me to develop if I could or if I wanted to,” Peter recounted. “I knew at a young age his competitive nature always burned in his belly and he excelled by playing sports hard, with purpose, and to win. Yet he knew I never possessed that same desire and graciously and lovingly avoided the pitfall of pushing a sensitive youngster too far.”

     Jack ‘Dutch’ Garfinkel (June 13, 1918--August 14, 2013): Informally acknowledged for inventing the no-look pass and being the best at that skill until Bob Cousy and Dick McGuire emerged.

     His most gratifying moment, underlined his son, Rich, was the September night (’92) he was inducted into the NYC Basketball Hal of Fame with Marty Glickman, Sihugo Green, Richie Guerin, Sonny Hertzberg, Joe Lapchick, Frank McGuire, Willis Reed, Satch Sanders and John Isaacs. 

    Beyond belonging to such an exalted class, the greater honor was Pop Gates and Isaacs, of New York Rens eminence, inviting Dutch, long accredited for being colorblind, to join them at their table for some birthday cake. 

     Dean Meminger (May 13, 1948--August 23, 2013): Until 1973, the Celtics had never lost a Game 7 home playoff game. He is best remembered for spearheading the end to that insolence of invincibility. Replacing Earl Monroe in the second quarter of the Eastern Conference Finals, the nuclear sub held Jo Jo White scoreless in the second half while notching 13 points. The Knicks beat the Lakers for the title.

    Overcoming human issues was infinitely more challenging, one tormenting conflict at a time…though you’d never know it by his six-pack, Dean Jr correctly noted. “He took pride in his physical appearance. He wanted to look sharp and be physically fit.” 

     Even in his 60s, Meminger always seemed to be bouncing a ball. You’d hear him coming before you could see him, his daughter, Miesha, smilingly remarked during the exceedingly uplifting celebration of Dean the Dream’s life at Harlem’s St. Charles Borromeo Church—his No. 7 jersey hung on an altar and photographs showing Meminger at Rice HS, Marquette University and the NBA.

    “Most people only know my father as Dean the Dream,” Dean Jr said. “They don’t realize he was a philosopher and great debater on policies relating from religion to politics. He knew real stuff, not just athletics. He was multi-faceted. He came from that era, when everything was being questioned. 

    “He was much more than Dean the Dream. He was definitely Dean the Proud Father. And Dean the Proud Grandfather, with another grandson on the way. He and my sister’s father-in-law were always teasing each other about who would have more time with the new baby.”

     Zelmo Beaty (Oct 25, 1939--August 27, 2013): Irrefutably, one of the game’s roughest customers to take care of business in the occupied area. One of its shrewdest also. 

     “Z couldn’t run. You could beat him down court, but before you took off, you’d pay a price,” Mel Daniels vividly recalled. 

     “Z couldn’t jump. He didn’t have to, ‘cause he’d lock you up with brute strength and studied subtlety,” the HOF center attested.

     “I wish I had thanked Zelmo for everything he taught me,” Daniels closed.

     And, despite being barely 6-7½, ‘Z’ stood unflinchingly erect against some of the greatest centers of all-time for a dozen NBA/ABA seasons (17.1 points, 10.9 rebounds), snatching the MVP award by its thyroid gland in the Utah Stars 1970 championship run.

     How did Beaty become so tough? Bill Downey, 90, a Prairie View A&M alumnus, and Beaty’s most faithful  advocate, supplied the answer upon being tracked down. 

     “When Zelmo came to school, he was milquetoast. Coach Leroy Moore told Johnnie Walker, whose body appeared to be built in a laboratory, to beat up on him every day at practice. He left a monster.” 

      Willie Wise’s ultimate respect for his Stars’ roommate of four years embodied his on-the-court work ethic (“Lazy was a word he couldn’t even spell”) and human rights activism.

     “Slim was greatly influenced by Martin Luther King and became a staunch proponent for equality in all arenas, especially education. That’s why he became a substitute teacher. He went into the unruliest schools in Washington State because he wanted Afro American kids to have a chance to learn.”

     Don ‘Monk’ Meineke (Oct. 30, 1930--Sept. 2, 2013): Best known for winning the initial (1953) NBA rookie award. The 6-7 center was equally pumped for leading the league one year in disqualifications,” Don Jr chuckled. “Losing his front teeth was a badge of honor.”

      Tom Blackburn’s Dayton program (inherited by Don Donoher) was tops in Division I throughout the ‘50s, when Monk gained national recognition for the Flyers, and the ‘60s. The winning was certainly meaningful, for a moment. The camaraderie established as teammates lasted a lifetime. 

     “Dad was most proud of being a Flyer,” Don Jr said. “Those relationships have remained unbroken for decades.” 

     The uniqueness of the Dayton teams of the 50's is illustrated by the circumstance that a lot of those guys-- Meineke, Arlen Bockhorn, Pete Boyle, Carmen Riazzi and Jim Paxson Sr--stayed in the Dayton area. As a result, their kids kind of grew up together and wound up playing for Archbishop Alter HS. Two Meineke’s, one Bockhorn, two Boyles, a Riazzi and John Paxson teamed to win the ’78 Ohio State title. 

     Last August Meineke entered Bethany Lutheran, the same Ohio nursing home/assisted facility where the arthritically afflicted Paxson still resides. Monk’s heart was failing.

      “Jim was very protective the short time he was there,” Don Jr said. “Numerous times, he wheeled himself over to dad’s room in the nursing section to offer encouragement. And he’d bring cookies. Later, he’d call and tell me I had to do something because dad had stopped eating. Jim thought he was giving up.” 

      Joe C. Meriweather (Oct. 26, 1953--Oct. 13, 2013): The  6-10 center was so skinny (215) when the Rockets drafted him in 1975, he had to remove one ‘r’ from his name so it could fit on his uniform. Drum roll, please.

     Upon turning pro, nothing made him swell with satisfaction more than taking care of his mother, Hattie Meriweather. She was able to retire from working in a Columbus, Georgia cotton mill and move into the home he purchased for her.

     Joe and Gail were married 16 years. For the 12 since being divorced, he never missed a Christmas or a Thanksgiving with his ex and their two children, Jonathan and Jillian. Moreover, each morning, he’d send them a text message containing “today’s scripture”.

     “He was an excellent father and a great friend,” Gail said. “He had opportunities to move away from Kansas City, but wanted to be around for his kids. Joe understood how important that was.”

     So much so, Joe started a Fatherhood Program and helped inmates at Leavenworth Prison. He also taught tribal children in Arizona and North Carolina about sports and other life skills.

     Jonathan, 28, played one year in Australia (he was invited to a workout with the Lakers’ Development team). He’s now with Ford, completing his MBA in financing. Jillian graduated cum laude from Harvard with a Social Studies degree, has a masters from UNLV and will be pursuing a Phd. 

     “Though Joe passed under that threshold far too soon, I’m secure knowing he’d been so close to his children,” Gail said. “None of this would’ve happened if they didn’t have both parents moving in the right direction.”

     Bill Sharman (May 25, 1926--Oct. 25, 2013): Of all his accomplishments in his non-seeking limelight life as patriot, official scorer for the first four Celtics’ champions teams, proud father of four children, reverential husband, animal lover, shrew manipulator of megalomaniacs on three title teams in three leagues, savvy executive, adroit athlete for all seasons, creator of the shoot-around and 3-point make, brains behind a record 33 straight Laker wins, one of three (John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens) HOF inductees as both coach and player, one stands out in Joyce Sharman’s wifely eyes.

     Earl Lloyd was the first African American to play (Washington Capitols) in the NBA, Oct. 31, 1950. Before they folded 35 games into the season, the rookie was greatly touched by Sharman, also a rookie. In an essay about his influences and lessons learned about dignity, perseverance and humanity called ‘Handprints’, Lloyd proclaimed appreciation for his former teammate (and others) who risked denigration by supporting him when Sharman could’ve laid low without anyone catching on.

     “In my life, there were many good people who restored my faith in human nature. Bill is one I will never forget.”  In those days, he would drive into the hood and take Earl back and forth to practice and games, and if a restaurant turned him away, Bill would go, too. 

     “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Lloyd emphasized. If he hadn’t, no one would have criticized him…” 

     A framed copy of those evocative words, compliments of a Lloyd care package, as a token of his love, respect and high esteem, hangs prominently in the Sharman’s den. 

     “I think what Earl wrote about Bill was so important because none of us know how we effect someone else's life by saying a kind word or giving a helping hand,” Joyce said.

 “Bill was the kindest person, genuine through and through. And I think what he did for Earl shows that better than anything else that ever could be said. It was complete kindness and compassion...and that is who Bill was. He never knew Earl would pay him such a profound tribute until many years later. And to have it come from someone like 

Earl makes it even more emotional for me because he is such a great man. How blessed I feel to know both of these amazing men!”

     Walt Bellamy (July 24, 1939--Nov. 2, 2013): Regrettably, he’s best known for being packaged with Howie Komives to the Pistons for Dave DeBusschere, permitting Red Holzman to rearrange roster roles and positions, leading to two Knicks’ title: 

     Rather than being hailed as a ten-or-better Hall of Fame center; or the centerfold for the original Olympic (’60) Dream Team; or for consistently producing at an elite plateau (20.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, 51.6 FG%, 13 seasons) while playing for four different franchises/teammates and many systems, an indelible testament to his career.

     The consequences of that trade, I submit (or maybe it was just being unlucky to play at the same time and being overshadowed by so many great centers) also cost Bellamy in the minds of Top 50 voters 

     “I’m glad you brought that up,” said Helen Bellamy, who would’ve been married to Walt 54 years come July 11. “He never said a word about it or the trade. But it hurt me. I’m not an envious person. And I’m not selfish. But Walt was better than some that made it. I had to turn it loose.

    “Walt loved the NBA. Loved his family. Loved his mother (Theo died a few months after him), who lived with us for 21 years. And loved me. We never had an argument. If I wanted the moon, Walt would get it for me.”

     Vern Mikkelsen (Oct. 21, 1928--Nov. 21, 2013): Minnesota’s macho (bruiser on the court, gentle giant off) HOF forward on four title teams. He also happens to be the career never-to-be-broken (six fouls now v five then) leader in disqualifications, 127. 

     Raised in one of the smallest of small towns in northern Minnesota, Vern lived out a dream come true without sidestepping values. Coach John Kundla knew whom to count on by asking him to have Elgin Baylor’s back when so many people messed with the rookie, especially on the road. Not long ago, he unearthed Elgin’s original numbered shorts and called him to say he would send them. Baylor was ecstatic. He said he planned to frame the shorts and give it to one of his children. 

     In 2008, after Big Mikk suffered a stroke, Little Mikk came from Santa Monica to care for his dad, for a while, he thought. He never left. His dad refused to quit. 

     “He’d had double hip surgery. Had prostate cancer for 13 years. And now he couldn’t use his right hand. But he never complained. He always had a good thought for some one else,” said John; Vern called him by his middle name, Pete. 

      Big Mikk was getting more fan mail in those years than ever before. So, he learned how to write (and eat) with his left hand. It took him ten painstaking minutes to sign one autograph. He’d do three a day, never wanting to turn down a fan. The next day he’d wake up and exclaim, “Hey, we got another day. Love and gratitude. LG, Petey, LG. Here’s to us.” 

     Marv Wolfenson (August 13, 1926--Dec. 21, 2013): Together with lifelong business partner, Harvey Ratner, they returned Minnesota back to NBA relevance, paying $32.5 million for the rights of the 1989 expansion Timberwolves, and financing the Target Center’s construction for 94M.

     “Getting into the NBA was quite a departure from the under-the-radar reality he lived before that,” said his daughter, Ellyn, sister of Ernie and David. “But he grabbed onto it like everything else. Whatever he did, he really loved. And whomever he did it with, loved him back.

     “My dad loved going to work, the excitement and invigoration of his business life was a thrill to him, but he always told us, ‘Don’t fall in love with your business, fall in love with your family.’ He lived that principle every day. 

      “The Timberwolves were an incredibly thrilling time for all of us, but my dad made it perfectly clear the five of us at home—a winning, functional, happy ‘5-man’ team--was the most important one he ever built.” 

     Fifteen years ago, Wolfenson had a stroke after hip surgery. Walking and talking were difficult. He apologized to Ellyn for having trouble communicating. “I have so much more to tell you,” he said.

     “Dad was a fabulous athlete his whole life. Early on, he was a star basketball and baseball player. Later, he became an excellent tennis player and golfer. He survived so long because he was so competitive. He was just not a person who quit. 

     “Dad always chose life, no matter what. Even in sickness. Even in his last breath, he wished he could’ve lived longer.”

     Conrad ‘Connie’ Dierking (Oct 2, 1936—Dec 29, 2013): Fifty-seven years after the 6-9 slender center played for Cincinnati, he still holds the school’s single-season rebounding average, 18.8 and single-game mark, 33. Yet, the man is far better known for being partial payment in a trade for Wilt Chamberlain 

     “There were five of us. As the oldest, Connie had the toughest time of all,” said Fred Dierking, who followed his brother to UC and helped win back-to-back NCAA titles after Oscar Robertson and Connie graduated.

     “My father was a laborer. He didn’t understand the value of an education. He felt you should get a job and keep it. Connie had to sneak out of the house to play ball and sneak back in afterward.”

     In ten seasons, Connie’s scoring average was 10. So, when he drained 45 one enchanting evening against none other than Chamberlain, a big deal was made by all. Dippy even signed the game ball, which became the centerpiece on the Dierking’s living room mantle.

     Looking for a ball to play H.O.R.S.E in the backyard, and unaware of the leather treasure’s significance, Kammy, 8, took it. Next thing she knew, it had rolled down the hill and into a creek, never to be seen again. 

     “My mother had a conniption, “Kammy recalled. ‘Oh, my, God, what did you do!’ “But when my dad got home and heard the news, he just shrugged, ‘Oh, well,’ and laughed. That was him. He didn’t care about stuff. He’d always tell us, ‘It’s people and memories that matter.’”

     Tom Gola (Jan. 13, 1933--Jan. 26, 2014): Scrabble should’ve named the blank in its set after the near 6-6 portable player, who capably clamped down on college centers and serial scoring guards alike. 

    The NCAA’s all-time leading rebounder (2,201; as well as 2,462 points) carried upstart LaSalle to NIT (’52) and NCAA (’54) championships, and was runner-up to Bill Russell’s Dons in ’55. In ’56, he joined lowly Philadelphia and figured out how to best serve in an understudy capacity to shooting stars Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston during the Warriors’ title crusade. 

     “Tom was one of the game’s all-time intellectuals,” Sonny Hill testified. “Almost an Oscar Robertson type. He’d place teammates in their strength positions and, without getting in their way, do whatever else needed to be done.” 

     Gola was recruited by 200-plus colleges, but loved the Christian Brothers, his HS teaching order. “Tom was very confused. He had no one to guide him,” said Caroline, his wife since ’55. “So, he went to see the president of LaSalle and they spoke for 20 minutes. That was it. He felt comfortable there and got a great education.” 

     That flawlessly summarizes Gola; easy to understand, no fuss, no muss, no favors, no nonsense, no bringing the game home, win or lose, no regrets, Caroline expounded. 

     On the flip side of his prayer card picture, Gola’s fundamentally pure words say it all: “I am a contented person. I gave it my best in all that I did, in sports, in businesses and in public office. I would have never second- guessed myself.”

    In 2013, the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Legends, in its inaugural ceremony staged at Brooklyn’s Barkley Center, honored Gola, who was inducted into every imaginable basketball HOF and has LaSalle’s arena named after him. 

     He was bedridden for the last 8½ years of his life, and thus unable to attend. Caroline substituted. Another recipient, Monk Meineke, introduced himself. “I have to tell you a story when I was a senior and Tom was a freshman,” she related. “Dayton played LaSalle for the NIT championship. Before the game, I said, ‘Dear Lord, he has three years to get better and this is my last game. Please let me win.’”  

      Sam Lacey (March 8, 1948—March 14, 2014): In 1970, after signing with Cincinnati, he spent part of his bonus on a Canary yellow Grand Prix, drove it to Indianola, Mississippi and gave it to Andrew Brown, his Gentry HS coach.

     Otis Birdsong maintains ‘Slammin’ Sam’ was “the unequivocal leader” on a Kings team that had very strong personalities, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Phil Ford, for example. “He was all-out aggression, all the time, to compensate for his lack of height and bulk. He was always on the march forward.” 

     The seeing-eye center was also the best passing big man Birdsong ever played off. “He’d find me on cuts for three or four layups a game.”

     Gretchen Lacey said her dad was a very private person, but you’d never know it. “A hundred people would line up and he’d talk to all of them. He was generous with his time, almost to a fault…

     “…Sam would often sing to Gretchen’s daughter, 11. He’d come into the house, stick his head through her door and say, ‘Alyvia, I heard you gave away my hugs.’”

     Peyton turned 13 in May. “It’s so strange to watch him play, passing, passing, passing,” Gretchen said wistfully. He had switched from Sam’s No. 44 to Walter Payton’s 34. Devastated when Sam died, Peyton asked for his old number back to “make grandpa proud.” 

     “He’s really shining right now. He sees the floor and threads the needle like Sam did.” At an April game, every other word out of the mouths of Gretchen and her husband, Brent Downey, was, “Wow!’”

     Lou Hudson (July 11, 1944—April 11, 2014): The obsession to succeed, to overcome any obstacles blocking ambitions that great athletes brandish is not a characteristic lost when applause dies. 

     Much is known about Sweet Lou’s simonized springer that earned him six All-Star appearances, a 20.2 average and the rare retirement of a Hawks number (23). Clearly, scoring 17,940 points is not done by being passive, or lacking fighting spirit. 

     When Hudson broke his right wrist one season, he played in a cast and averaged 18 points shooting lefty. When he suffered a stroke in 2005, confining him to a wheelchair, he made public appearances as an “ambassador’ for the “Power to End Stroke” organization.

     Four years later, Hudson, whose condition had improved very little, was brought to Atlanta for an event. Former teammate Jim Washington picked him at the airport. On the baggage belt were Lou’s golf clubs.

     “I started to say, ‘why did you bring your…’ until it dawned on me, this was his way of saying, ‘I’m going to get better. Next year, I’ll be out on the course with you.’ So, I switched up and said, ‘you could’ve used mine.’

     A couple years ago, Hudson moved back to Atlanta from Park City, Utah. Each day he’d work out three times, 35 minutes per. He declined an offer of a motorized wheelchair, and the promise of greater mobility and independence. In his mind, it would’ve meant giving up. 

     Following another stroke in late March, upon being removed from life support, Hudson lasted two weeks in hospice. Normally, it’s one.

     Michael Heisley (March 13, 1937—April 26, 2014): “I’ve always admired people who are charitable and don’t want the whole world to know about it,” Jerry West said. “That’s what I’d like people to know about Michael. “He did so many great things for people. Anytime there was a cause, he was there, yet never wanted credit.”

     West had plenty of prosperous years with the Lakers. “Probably the happiest” was his second year (2004) as GM with the Grizzlies when he hired Hubie Brown to coach and they made the playoffs. “It was definitely my proudest moment.”

      Heisley desperately wanted to win, West said. “He’d tell me, ‘I just want us to make the playoffs one year.’ “I guaranteed him we’d make it more than that. He was thrilled beyond description when we made it. The enthusiasm in the building was fantastic. It was one of the highlights of my life to see him so happy.  

     “People often misread Michael because he was unbelievably honest and could sometimes be irascible with that big, old booming voice of his,” West said. “That’s the side most people saw, his toughness because he was self-made, taking companies on their death bed and turning them around with his unique leadership qualities. But he was so different. 

     “I never had anyone in my life treat me like he did. I’m not talking financially. The more I was around him the more I felt something special. He was one of the people I liked the most.” 

     Jack Ramsay (Feb 21, 1925—April 28, 2014):Who didn't Dr. Jack touch as a husband, father, friend, World War II veteran, general manager, coach at the college & pro levels, broadcaster, fitness/fashion freak and cancer patient who never retreated, whose unflinching faith in God enabled him to retain his spirit, vibrancy and NBA voice almost to the end of a multi-decorated life lived decorously.

     Who wasn’t touched by him?

     No one, consensus attests, suffered defeat harder. Which partially explains why Dr. Jack remained unconquerable for 15 years despite eight different forms of malignancy that swamped his body. 

     “Losing would destroy him,” said Magic executive Pat Williams 46 years after Ramsay gave him his first NBA chance, handling business for the 76ers, so Dr. Jack could concentrate on his return to the sidelines after leaving St. Joseph’s two years earlier due to retina trouble related to stress.

      Why Ramsay’s eyes didn’t succumb to NBA stress remains a mystery. “I remember losing in Chicago Stadium. Not a good place to leave unescorted ” Williams related. “Jack waved off the bus. He walked back to the hotel.”  And made it unscathed.

     “That’s how bad things are going,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t even get mugged.”

     When your best player is coachable and reinforces everything you say, it’s easy to be successful, Dr. Jack would underscore. He and Bill Walton enjoyed a fervently committed relationship. He often reminisced about it, as he did the Blazers’ 1977 championship season and its selfless components.

    After each team pre-game meeting, Walton would say, “Come on, now, let’s go out on the floor and do what coach taught us.” 

     Let’s go.

     The above tributes were written for the 2014 NBA Finals program.

Bad Timing, Bad Credit, Bad Manners, Badass and Loving Tributes

By Peter Vecsey

About a year ago, 15 book editors thoroughly rejected my introductory (the operative word) submission—four expansive Michael Jordan chapters, three elongated on Larry Bird, a protracted section on Rucker Park, which deals essentially with Julius Erving playing four summers with my organized-and-coached Westsiders team (beginning after he left the University of Massachusetts and before his rookie year with the Virginia Squires) and descriptions of what else would be delivered. 

    Clearly, my proclivity for procrastination cost me dearly. Although I’d begun writing about Jordan years before ‘The Last Dance’ undraping, by the time I presented a proposal (with promises of revelations that I concealed for fear anyone casting eyes on such juicy substance could be tempted toward leaking and/or larceny), the prevailing feeling was people, though titillated and entertained, were marinated with Michael.  

      No hard feelings. Truly! 

     Except that people hadn’t read or heard nearly the whole truth concerning many issues raised (or not) by Jordan’s production plagiarists. So many of David Halberstam’s compositions were used without a speck of credit, as if it were crisp.  And then you had a horde of hacks and stagehands pretending to be telling untold tales.  

     With one irrefutable exclusion! Sam Smith, who scripted The Jordan Rules! Minus his unpaid, copious contribution, ESPN’s credibility would’ve reeked exhaustively. 

     Equally enlightening, with all due immodesty, ‘The Last Dance’ was missing what I have on recall to disclose. Hence, the title of my unpublished database, “Save the Last Dance For Me.” 

      A few weeks following the unified brushoff, the most disapproving editor granted me and my agent a requested audience in the backyard of his Sag Harbor home. I asked him to illuminate the decision for his unembellished deficiency in enthusiasm.          

     The answer can be found by re-reading the second paragraph.  

     His additional message apropos to a reboot was a theme was required. Disconnected subject matter, no matter how regal or rambunctious its subjects, didn’t grab him…in spite of the plain fact the book was about my 50-year plus career covering professional basketball.  

     Seems like everybody I chose to write about can’t help but be connected. After all, my dots are my own, as are my news breaking stories complete with background congruency, behind-the-screen revelations about NBC, the Daily News, the New York Post, The National, TNT, NBATV, CBS, USA Network, and major mistakes I committed. I’d love to teach an unconventional ethics college course incorporating every lapse of judgment I ever made, as well as life as a columnist crisscrossing the blurry divider between work and working at being a playa.   

       Toward the conclusion of our cordial consultation that lasted maybe an hour or so, the editor firmly stated he found my manuscript suggestion of pure anecdotes purely unappealing.  

    Moments later, the editor and my agent gushed about their ardor for ‘Loose Balls,’ a compilation of outlandish behavior by ABA members on all levels.  

     Irrespective of whether all the stories are true or false, it hardly represented what the red, white and through league was all about, it says here, an appearance that outrages its prominent players to this day.  

       So, what does an aspiring author do with the goods publishers don’t know, yet don’t desire, anyway? He finds an outlet (NBA Retired Players Association), unseals the spigot and releases some spicy stuff, courtesy of Charles Oakley. 

     The 50th anniversary, a couple days ago, of the Ali-Frazier bout at Madison Square Garden, for distinct reason, brought to mind a 54-minute phone conversation Oakley and I had ten years ago, in which he recounted a succession of fight stories he excelled in as an active and retired player. 

     Some have been told, no doubt, but not in such coarse terms.  

    Try the time Oakley slapped Charles Barkley in the face during a union meeting in Atlantic City during the ’99 lockout. Barkley made the mistake of mouthing off to Oakley about his position, then failed to keep a safe distance.  

     “I told him I was going to get him and I did,” Oak said. “He has most people fooled, but he’s full of shit! Sure, he was a talent, but he wasted a lot of it by not practicing hard, being out of shape or partying all night before a game. He says some really dumb shit on TV and in the papers, but basically kept his mouth shut on the court ‘cause he knew there were people like me who would close it for him.  

     “He don’t know shit, really, and he’s an asshole. I heard TNT wouldn’t put me in the same studio with him because people were afraid I would do something. I don’t hate him, but don’t come and put your arm around me or come within my reach.” 

      Things got real physical one day with Oakley and Tyrone Hill, then with the Sixers, who hadn’t repaid a 20G debt. 

     “We knew each other from Cleveland. He’s from Ohio (Cincinnati), I’m from Cleveland. He didn’t owe me the money from a card game as some writers wrote. I lent it to him when he couldn’t cover a bet in a dice game I was watching. After a while I got tired of listening to his excuses.  

    “The last straw was when he told me he couldn’t come up with the cash because he was going through a divorce. I told him you’re going to be going through a lot worse than that if you don’t give me my money.  

    “When we were in Philly soon after, I hit him while he was on the layup line. Then I had a ball boy deliver flowers to the locker room with a note that his mother had sent them for his funeral. The next time we played each other he called in sick. Larry Brown got hip to what was going on and made him pay me the 20G. He should’ve paid interest. I told him I should be doubling it.”  

      The best was yet to come. About five or six years after they’d retired, Oakley agreed to play in a pickup game in an Atlanta church. Normally, he wanted no part of such games because of all the complaining that goes on. Tyrone Hill was on the opposite team.  

     “We were killing ‘em, 8-1. Ty called for the ball on a play, claiming he was fouled. I told him ‘it’s not happening.’ He walked up on me like he was gonna do something and I hit him four or five times. Then you know what he did? He went to the people who ran the church and had them call the police. 

     “A warrant was issued for my arrest. They came to my apartment. He wanted them to put me in jail. It went to court and I had to pay the court costs, his lawyer ‘s fee and mine. A restraining order was issued and I was forbidden to come within 200-300 yards. The next summer I’m with M.J. at a Miami club and we’re 15 deep. And we spot Tyrone across the floor.  

    “Please do not touch that man, Jordan pleaded. “Please, do not touch that man.” 

     A fight with teammate Sidney Green occurred on a Knicks’ charter. There were roughly 30-35 people on board. Eddie Lee Wilkens and Pete Myers are in the back, and they start throwing grapes at Sidney, who’s in the front reading a book, Oakley related. “He gets up and comes to the back. ‘The next time I get hit I’m gonna come back here again and fuck you up,’ pointing his finger at the group. No sooner did he sit down then Pete fired another one and Green came storming to the back. I hit him a bunch of times. He returned to his seat bloodied. ‘When we land we’re going to finish this!’ Sid warned.  

     “We were headed to the team bus when here comes Sid, and he starts punching Pete, who’s taking some shots, but mockingly laughing all the same. ‘You weren’t this tough when Oak was whoopin’ your ass.’” 

     Anthony Mason and Oakley were good once they retired, but when they were Knicks teammates, they got into it all the time.  

       “He was always complaining about everything, always,” Oakley stressed. “The coaches couldn’t control him. This one day I told him to shut the fuck up. I wasn’t going anywhere. We fought the whole practice. Nobody tried to break it up, just let us go. 

     “Once during a Bulls playoff game, I told him during a time to shut the fuck up. Mase was tough but anybody ever see him take a charge?” 

    Oakley also reported when Don Nelson briefly coached the Knicks, sometimes he would play blackjack with Patrick Ewing, Chris Childs and Oak. Once, he won 100G at a single sitting. No, it did not factor into Nelson’s dismissal despite the team’s 34-25 record.  

    The primary reason was Ewing’s displeasure about Nelson making Mason the focal point of each offensive play, allowing him to decide where the ball was passed/shot.  

                     ***** 

    FYI:  

    Born yesterday, 99 years ago: Harvey Pollack 

    Today, four years ago, Ben Jobe passed.  

    March 4th was 24 years since Roger Brown died. 

     Scott Skiles and Reggie Williams celebrated their 57th birthday March 5th. Each played ten years in the NBA. Scott 600 games, Reggie 599. Scott, 16,789 minutes, Reggie 16,013. Scott, 11.1 ppg, Reggie 12.5. 

     Leroy Ellis was born March 10, Jim McMillian the 11th.  Both attended Thomas Jefferson HS in NYC. They were teammates on the ’72 Lakers title team whose 33 straight wins record still stands. Ellis died June 2, 2012; he’d be 80. Jimmy Mac passed May 16, 2016; he’d be 75.  

    March 4th was 24 years since Roger Brown died. 

   So, there it is, a column featuring bad timing, bad credit, bad manners, a badass and loving tributes to some lovely people. 

   You couldn’t have enjoyed it more if you were actually paying for it. 

All Star Remembrances

By Peter Vecsey

It’s All-Star (Reader’s Digest) time. Hence, another trip down the Memory Lane (Violation) of observations and anecdotes from exhibitions gone by.

     Interest of full disclosure, Michael Jordan froze me out of many memories, so I’m putting a fair amount of faith in Al Gore’s Internet.

     I was much younger and smarter back in ‘64 when icons of yore, led by Tommy Heinsohn, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others decided the show didn’t have to go on.

     This was at the old Boston Garden, but the arena paled in comparison to the agenda. The players’ union reps, backed by many of the participating All Stars, took a stand vs. a knee less than an hour before the NBA’s first made-for-TV All-Star Game. 

    Create a pension fund, Norma Rae declared, or we’re outta here! 

    One can’t forget that back then, test patterns and civil-defense drills had more television exposure than the NBA. So, when ABC decided to give the league a shot by airing the All-Stars, it was ankle-breaking news.

     Not wanting the humiliation of airing dead air, J. Walter Kennedy, only months into his inaugural season as commissioner, placated the rancor and file despite owners’ uncompromising position against complying and on-the-scene threats to ban the leaders from ever playing again in the league.


     Kennedy huddled with the player reps in the dressing room and promised he would convince the owners to start a pension plan. They took his word. Within months, it was approved.

     By virtue of 26 points, The Big O was judged the game’s MVP in leading the East to a 111-107 win, though it failed to cover, according to well-preserved IOUs to my least favorite bookie.

     Robertson, West and Russell all played 42 minutes, a feat matched by Nate Thurmond’s feet in 1967, but never surpassed.

     Fifty-five years ago (1966) was the game of Adrian Smith’s career. Playing at home in Cincinnati Gardens, the Royals’ reserve, in his lone Star soirée, went for a game-high 24 points in 26 minutes. 

     The car (’66 Ford Galaxie; shade under 60,000 miles as of Jan. 2016) remains in his garage; at least that’s what every feature I’ve skimmed, scanned or browsed maintains.

     Back in 1973, inside Chicago Stadium, the East won, 104-84. Those 188 points may very well be a first-quarter total when the defense parade rests come Sunday in Atlanta. The West’s figure was the last time either side failed to crack triple figures.

     For some strange reason, the West took 25 fewer shots. A vicious rumor has it players broke a sweat back then.

     In 1975, Walt Frazier was awarded the MVP in Phoenix where the ‘best’ hotel was Del Webb’s Town House, owned by the former co-owner (ex-partner Dan Topping died the year before at 61) of the Yankees. 

     The sole spot to eat afterward for famished players was a diner-like restaurant. At the table to my left was Tiny Archibald and a beautiful woman named Jean. At the table to my right was Frazier, decked out in a full-length fur coat. 

    Milwaukee hosted the 1977 classic. It was Julius Erving’s initial NBA appearance as a 76er. His MVP award (30 points, 12 rebounds, four steals, three assists) was controversial in that the West rallied late behind Paul Westphal to win, 125-124. 

     “I’ve seen him almost every game this season, but this is the first time I’ve seen him play,” hissed Turquoise Erving, rebuking Gene Shue’s constrained coaching of her then husband.

     John Havlicek’s last All Star presence occurred in Atlanta in 1978, his retirement season. Doug Collins paid homage by yielding his starting East spot to him. Randy Smith (11-14 FG, 27 points) led a late comeback offensive and dominated MVP voting. 

     I did not look it up, but I’ve got to believe he was the last All Star to earn five or more fouls. Whoops, copy editor Jason Javaherian happened to look it up. Turns out, I’m wrong, exceptionally so. 

     Rick Barry actually fouled out of that same game. Then Hakeem Olajuwon fouled out of the ’87 Game in Seattle. MVP Sonic Tom Chambers got whistled for five fouls, as did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

    Since, no one has fouled out. 

    Before, there were many. Bobby Wanzer was first to six in ’54 at Madison Square Garden. Bob Cousy did it twice. Barry had six in two different decades. Walt Bellamy and Richie Guerin had six each in ’62. Russell had six in ’65, as did Johnny Green. Kareem fouled out in spectacular fashion his rookie year; took him 18 minutes. Willis Reed had six that game as well.

     From 2009-2019 nobody had 5 fouls.

      From 2001-to-the-present, in reverse order, James Harden had five fouls last year. Before that, the last guy with five was Chris Paul in 2008, Amare Stoudemire in 2007, Kobe and Shaq in 2006. Kobe did it in 2005 as well, three times, actually, in 2003, too. Dikembe Mutumbo had 5 in 2001. 

     I’m in fact, repentant for bringing up the subject.

     A most intense retention of the 1982 All Star Game in East Rutherford involved Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien and coach Bill Musselman. I had branded them ‘Septank’ and ‘Musselhead’ and unremittingly used their nicknames in columns. They asked to talk with me in private. I walked vigilantly alongside them into the bowels of Brendan Byrne Arena, fully expecting swings to be swung. Instead, they politely asked me to stop using the nicknames. So I did. 

    Indianapolis was the site of the 1985 All-Star Game. For Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas it was their homecoming. For rookie Michael Jordan, it was his unveiling. At halftime, Thomas’ agent, Dr. Charles Tucker, alerted me on press row to an alleged ‘freeze out’ of Jordan, which I broke the next day in the New York Post. Supposedly, Thomas was its organizer. 

     If anything, it was not a freeze out, but collusion by Tucker’s clients, two of them opponents, George Gervin and Magic Johnson, the purported objective being to show up the sensed showoff; Nike had him adorned in a flashy warm-ups and a shoe the NBA was opposed to him wearing. 

     The real intent, I submit, may very well have been to make Michael honor the chain of command and respect his accomplished elders. Gervin flushed his first six shots being defended by Jordan, and finished 10-12. Magic, I’m convinced, felt Jordan was undeservingly stealing his commercial and publicity thunder. Thus he pounced on the East squad as if it were a playoff game, and pushed the pace (15 assists), which had Jordan backpedaling on the break, and staggering into screens. 

     Any way you wish to view it, Jordan’s debut was a dud. He was 2-9 (seven points) from the field and committed four fouls in 22 minutes. 

     Thomas, meanwhile, injured his hamstring at the end of the second quarter after recording 17 points. He played sparingly thereafter, yet managed to notch 9-14, nourish Bird, Moses Malone and Erving (five assists) and hypothetically neuter Jordan.

       “Just go back and examine the game,” Thomas challenged me years ago when his would-be principal role in the debate was discussed at length. “People say, ‘you could have passed to Jordan, but you passed to Bird or Erving.’ That’s right! But those were the guys you’re supposed to throw the ball.” 

     Those same people, Thomas professed, “forget that Jordan wasn’t Jordan then. What he was in the ‘80s, was not what he became in the ‘90s. He was one of many. Not the dominant guy!” 

     What’s more, he underlined, all the starters got roughly the same number of shots. Bird hoisted 17, Erving 15, Thomas 14, Malone ten, and Jordan, who saw the least amount of daylight, nine 

     “It’s preposterous to think I had the clout to orchestrate such a scheme. To say, we need to do this or that. I was not one of the top guys then.”

      However, he was. The previous All Star game in Denver, Thomas won the MVP. He also won it the next year in Dallas. In his fourth season, he had already become one of the NBA’s celestial beings. That doesn’t mean he coordinated a conspiracy, of course, but it also doesn’t liberate him from being a lead participant in one. 

     “I believe Michael just had a bad game,” Thomas resolutely decided.  

     Jordan has been quoted in later years saying he doesn’t believe there was a freeze out. There’s not a lucid person alive who believes him. 

     Years ago, Rod Thorn told me in a long interview at the league office, where he was VP of Violence, felt from his vantage point in the stands as then-Bulls GM that something troublesome concerning Jordan was going in the game.  

     Conversely, Jordan did not pick up the scent of scandal until the next day when papers blared the story. Bulls beat writer, Sam Smith, wrote in the Chicago Tribune Michael was both furious and embarrassed. Whether it occurred or not, he determined it had. He told reporters it made him feel small, that he felt like crawling in a hole and hiding and not coming out. 

     “I was very quiet when I went down there (Indy),” Jordan said. “I didn’t want to go there like, ‘I’m a big shot rookie and you must respect me.’ And then they try to embarrass me out of jealousy?”

     At practice back in Chicago, Jordan fumed about the situation, and fumed about Thomas. As destiny would dictate, the Bulls played the Pistons two days following the All Star game. 

     In a 139-126 overtime win, the Bulls’ record reached the equator. 

     Jordan detonated for 49 points (19-31 FG, 11-13 FT), 15 rebounds (seven offensive), five assists and four steals. 

No Rest for the Weary

By Peter Vecsey

 I don’t know about you—it’s not a concern of mine, actually—but I never tire of presenting accounts and descriptions of Larry Legend without the express written consent of the NBA. 

   In Game 1 of the 1981 Finals, the Rockets lost by three points in Boston, largely on a blood shot off a rebound that caromed to the right side of the backboard and was retrieved in the air by Bird. He caught it and drained a fall-away with his left hand in the last minute before alighting out of bounds.  

   There was no way Bird could have shot it, much less converted it, with his right hand! OK, so he is a natural lefty, but really only goes that way with a pen, a fork or spoon, or if guarded by a Trail Blazer.  

   Red Auerbach called it the best shot he had ever seen. I was there and categorically second that stance. 

   Moses Malone is another luminary whose exploits and escapades deserve to get routinely revisited. Specifically when they harmonize with Bird in the same series. 

   In Game 2, two days later (May 5th for the record; in the last 20 years, this date falls in the second round), the Rockets already were jammed up in a must-win situation…and in the early going, were getting maltreated.  

   Realizing the gravity of the rapidly unraveling situation, coach Del Harris resorted to unwarranted measures. He called a time out and scolded Malone, the centrifugal force behind Houston reaching the Larry O’Brien Round. 

   The league’s perennial MVP contender had scored a scrawny 13 points in the opener on 4-for-17 shooting, though to be even-handed, he had tracked down his usual 15-rebound allotment, a fair number were flagging his own misdeeds. 

   Moses was the Rockets’ whole kit and caboodle (I never used that banality before, but couldn’t control an urge to do so). Harris almost never had to get on him. Malone’s work ethic and competitive edge were above admonishment, and that was on the pre-game layup line. 

   Still, after telling the team what had to be done, Harris closed with, “And Mo, you have to get on the boards, man!" 

   “F - you, coach!” 

   “Mo,” Harris reacted, “We can talk about our sex life after the game, but right now I need you to get some rebounds!” 

   The players cracked up. Their tension croaked. Mo surged for 31 points and 15 rebounds, leading Houston to a 94-92 win. 

   Next, just some odd information relative to the way playing time is doled out by today’s coaches. 

   Games 3 & 4 of that series were played in Houston, back-to-back, Saturday/Sunday, May 9th & 10th. For the kiddies under 50 in this audience, this happened every post-season in prehistoric times. 

   The Rockets got trampled in Game 3. The next afternoon, Harris only used a six-pack of players...spontaneously, I later learned, not the plan, as the game flow seemed to dictate that. 

   Mike Dunleavy was on a roll with 28 points and six assists, while Tom Henderson had to be on the court to guard Tiny Archibald, Clinton (Bronx, NY) high school alumni going at one another. 

   Calvin Murphy, a superb sixth man, and Houston’s second-leading scorer, had tweaked a leg in Game 3, therefore, there was no run for him. 

   Allen Leavell, a solid player, also saw no daylight. Bill Willoughby was the sole sub. Poodles contributed eight points.  

   Malone played all 48! He amassed 24 points and 22 rebounds, as the Rockets won, 91-86, before the largest NBA TV (not to be confused with NBATV) audience of the season.  

   Unfortunately for the sixth-seed Rockets, that was the end of that. The Celtics won Games 5 & 6 by a combined 40 points, raising another banner to the Rastafarians. 

   The point I wanted to make with regards to the minutes of the meeting is that this was at a time of commercial flights.  

   There were no charters (except the Knicks, who often hired a plane on the rear end of back-to-back nights on the east coast), extra staff for training and nutrition, psychologists, masseuses, skills guys, 29 assistant coaches and 15-man rosters, as is the case today.  

   Moreover, the 82-game schedule was somewhat condensed (early October to late March) as compared with nowadays.  

   Of course, there were only 23 teams then, and seven-game series were just for three rounds. Additionally, the division champs earned a bye in the first-round, three-game miniseries. 

   Regardless, the Rockets played a half-dozen back-to-back-to-back sets that season, which is outlawed today. Malone averaged 41 minutes and played 81 games. Houston’s top eight Minutemen missed a total of 32 games. 

   But here’s the soccer-style kicker for those who think you have to have minutes and games controlled by a ‘coach’ who hall monitors such things... the Celtics’ top eight missed a total of one game all season. 

   Cornbread Maxwell was the sloth that missed that game; it gave a youngster named Kevin McHale his lone start. Bird averaged right at 40 minutes, and averaged 39 even in his 11th season. Archibald, who’d suffered two torn Achilles before becoming a Celtic, averaged 35 at age 32; he had averaged as many as 46 one season. Malone averaged 35 in his 15th year. 

   Load management, anyone? 

   The solo qualification re: the Celtics missing a single game is that they only had one set of back-to-back-to-back, which was in February at Philly and Milwaukee and back home (Indiana).   

     Eastern Conference teams had easier travel in any case, but still had to go the full 82 games. Houston had a geographical disadvantage in travel as did all teams on the western front. The Rockets had a game at Phoenix on a Friday, were home vs. the Knicks Saturday and another the next afternoon in Denver. Delays forced the players to dress on the bus. 

   The Nuggets had not scored fewer than 100 points since Nov. 26, and this was in February. In fact, Doug Moe would coach the last 51 games of that season and this was the lone game they failed to score 100. The Rockets braked and won, 98-97.  

   Earlier that month, Houston had beaten Utah at home Thursday, 117-103, then won at Dallas Friday in OT, 124-120, before going to Denver Saturday, where they lost, 134-132.   

   In fact, the Nuggets scored over 130 frequently in Moe’s first season with them and often thereafter. They had a high of 162 that season against Portland, and went over 140 on four other occasions. Alex English and David Thompson logged the most minutes per game on that team, and missed but five games total. English averaged 38 in 81 games, Dan Issel 33 minutes at age 30.  

  The players back then rarely rested, thus I rest my case. 

   Some even got angry when coaches took them out.  

                     ******  

   Many, if not all, NBA connoisseurs are convinced, I’m convinced, that George Gervin dreamt up the finger roll. Overtime to get a firm grip on reality. 

Larry Bird’s Hall of Fame induction occurred in 1998. An hour or so before the ceremony was to begin, there I was, a nobody from Hollis, Queens, hanging out in an enchanted forest teeming with premium players right off the pages of basketball history. The reverential mingling instantaneously deviated into locker room humor the moment Wilt Chamberlain lowered his head through the door of a private room. 

     “George Gervin!” he bellowed at the first target trapped in his sights. “If it isn’t the world famous Iceman!” 

     Wilt’s affectionate mocking fissured Gervin, sending him into hysterics. It was an honor (and a hoot) to be saluted by the NBA’s most daunting constellation even if the tone was irreverent. 

     “What’s happenin’, Dipper. What do you know?” hailed Gervin as Wilt sidled up for some conversation to a small group that included Bob Lanier. 

     “I’m not at liberty to tell you that,” Wilt huffed. “But I’ll tell you what I’d like to know: 

     “How come you’re doing all the commercials, making all the money, and getting all the credit for the finger roll, and I’m not making a dime? And I’m the one who originated it! Can you explain that to me, please!” 

     It seemed like a good time to get sufficiently nervous, but that would’ve conflicted with the Iceman’s style. Anyway, he was laughing too hard to get tense. 

     “You right … you right ... you the man,” Gervin squawked in between gulps for air. “No question, Dippy, you originated the finger roll. But I perfected it!” 

    Undoubtedly, those same fervent followers of the NBA swear Tim Hardaway originated the crossover, and that World B. Free originated the step-back.  

   In fact, Archie Clark created both designer displays, which is how he earned his nickname. 

      Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of Archie Clark—a collaborative effort with Bob Kuska-- is the story of one of ‘70s most respected versatile guards. He’d routinely stagger defenders with a customized crossover dribble, and is credited by peers as the stylist of today’s illustrious step-back. 

   A third-round (U. of Minnesota) 1966 draft pick by the Lakers, Clark’s growth spurt was swift and adroit. Midway through rookie year, he was starting alongside Jerry West.  

   As competent as Clark was on the court, he was correspondingly combative off it. A deep-thinking pioneer for players’ rights, he often challenged coaches and owners on principle, much to the detriment of his career valuation. 

   However, as one of the torchbearers of the Player’s Union, his legacy is lasting. A litigant (along with John Havlicek, Wes Unseld, Bill Bradley and others) in the 1970 seminal Robertson vs. NBA antitrust case—settled in 1976--it ended the player reserve system and laid the foundation for the modern NBA. 

   Do yourself an educational favor and assimilate ‘Hard Labor’ by Sam Smith. 

   Clark was the major part of the package offered by the Lakers to the 76ers for Chamberlain. First, however, he was the stumbling block because his contract had concluded. In order to finalize the seismic transaction, LA owner Jack Kent Cooke had to re-sign him. Despite lacking representation, Clark exploited the circumstances to squeeze a contract that broke the $100,000 barrier, an immense deal for anyone not named Chamberlain, Bill Russell and West.  

   What’s more, Clark got the insufferable Cooke to pay most of his salary for two seasons in Philly.  

     FYI: his rookie one-year contract was a standard $11,000 unguaranteed for anyone not drafted in the first round, making him awfully vulnerable. In fact, the Lakers almost cut Clark to keep John Wetzel. Why? To maintain “racial balance,” according to the book’s authors, another term for the NBA’s unwritten quota system. Luckily for Clark, the Lakers, “and my book writing,” Kuska underlines, Wetzel broke a wrist he’d fractured months before at the end of training camp, after a hard whack from Darrall Imhoff, a.k.a., The Ax.)  

   How did Clark develop the step-back move? That’s what I wanted to know. In the summer of ‘67, Archie became friendly with Woody Sauldsberry, whose playing rights had been sold to the 76ers in 1957 by Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein. 

   Ten years later, his NBA career was in jeopardy because Russell was allegedly jealous that the woman of his desire preferred his once-trusted teammate. Russell waived him out of Boston.  

   Clark and the long-armed, 6-foot-7 Sauldsberry worked out all that summer and Archie developed the step-back maneuver to get off his shot. According to Archie, nobody was using this evasive maneuver back then, a claim supported by others. 

   During Black History Month, Sauldsberry is also an interesting figure. An informal NBA tradition had emerged in the 1950s that black veterans should look out for their team’s black rookies, teaching them the ropes. 

   Among the most-outspoken were black veterans with a Philadelphia connection, including Sauldsberry, Guy Rodgers, Walt Hazzard, Ray Scott, and others.  

   In an age when “locker-room lawyers” got waived out of the league, these Philly guys would talk amongst themselves about the business of basketball. It was Sauldsberry who taught Clark how to negotiate a contract and, as mentioned above, eventually outsmart Cooke. 

   Clark became a part of this tradition, befriending Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor). He also taught his 76ers teammates how to buck the system and get bigger contacts. It was Clark who told Spencer Haywood that his deferred-drenched ABA contract with the Denver Rockets was inequitable, leading to his groundbreaking suit against the NBA that ended the four-year college rule, confirmed in the book by Haywood. 

   Check out the tome here.

                                    ****** 

   The minister who spoke at last Sunday's service for Harthorne Wingo at the cemetery in Tryon, N.C., told a story about how the 6-8 forward nearly wound up driving to California in 1968. He and two high-school teammates checked out the possibility of staying for a while and eventually moving there permanently. 

   It was going to be a three-day road trip. Everything was arranged, starting with departure date and time. The three met at a prescribed place and each threw a small bag into the trunk. Wingo got in and got out almost immediately. “This not going to work, I’m going to New York,” he declared.  

   The rest is Knicks’ History. 

   Bill Metcalf, one of Wingo’s high school teammates, corroborated the story. He said the vehicle was a Volkswagen! 

Old Testament Pertinence & Impertinence

By Peter Vecsey

Joe Barry Carroll, beneficiary of two exceptionally-mean nicknames I don’t care to revive in this space, enlisted Julius Erving, to (hopefully) broker a truce over dinner after a Warriors game in Philadelphia. 

   Neither one of us knew the other was coming until it was too late to back out. 

   As one might expect, the atmosphere at the table was a tad tense throughout the first course, but by the second loaf of bread, we were actually on speaking terms.  

   JBC had a lot on his mind, whereas I was hard-pressed to talk about things unrelated to basketball.  

    I remember he said he was reading Howard Cosell’s book, which had only been on the shelves a short while. 

   “Who gave it to you?” I asked. 

   “What do you, man, who gave it to me? I bought it!” he harrumphed 

   “Before it came out in paperback?” I asked suspiciously. 

   “Why should that surprise you? Have you read it?” 

   “No, I haven’t. “ 

   “You should. Did you know Cosell mentioned you in the book?” 

   “I doubt that. If he had, I think I would have heard about it.” 

   “No, really, he mentioned you. It had something to do with a column you once wrote where you knocked boxing.” 

   “That wasn’t me,” I explained. “You’ve got me mixed up with my brother, George. He writes for the New York Times.” 

   Joe Barry was visibly stunned by that information. After a few moments of dead air, he composed himself, leaned forward in his chair, and gasped, “You mean, there are two of you mother fuckers!!!”  

                            ****** 

   Many a coach, in trying, perhaps subconsciously, to justify his existence, has the tendency, as Yul Brynner might have said, to make a silly complication of a pleasant simplicity. 

    Instead of merely dialing his superstar’s number when the team desperately needs help, certain coaches attempt to win the hard way, by diagramming elaborate potential game-winning plays for unconventional heroes.  

   Until Larry Bird asserted himself in the huddle and demanded the ball, this was precisely what K.C. Jones was planning to do during a timeout with two seconds left on the game clock when the Celtics trailed the Blazers by one during the 1985 season. 

   Instead of running his ‘need play’ for Bird, who wasn’t being paid $1.8 million (remember, this was ‘85) to be a bystander come the crucible of crisis, Jones was scheming to win or lose with Cedric Maxwell. 

   There’s no doubt this scenario would’ve outwitted a lot of people...in all likelihood, even Jones himself. 

   Bird calmly restored reason to Jones’ impromptu arrangement. He simply demanded the ball when Dennis Johnson inbounded it. So much for fancy floor plans, second or third options, or excuses if he missed. 

   With Jerome Kersey and Clyde Drexler wearing Bird like clam sauce, Larry Legend retreated to the dark corner of the Parquet Palace, faked, leaned in with his left shoulder, and let it fly as he backpedaled out of bounds. 

   The horn sounded before his 47th and 48th points softly settled in the macramé. 

   It isn’t often a player is permitted to take control of a huddle like that. Then again, it isn’t often you’ve got a species like Bird to depend upon. It was a credit to Jones that he listened to reason, then be man enough to admit he’d been overruled, sorta.  

   That reminds me of a similar scene during the final overtime moments in (deciding) Game 5, ‘84 playoffs between the Knicks and Pistons. 

   Badly in need of a basket, the Knicks called a timeout. Everyone gathered around Hubie Brown for directions. Instantly, he had his mechanical men breakdancing across his clipboard on a baffling maneuver. From the looks on his players, the Pistons weren’t the only ones about to be confused by Hubie’s brilliantly-conceived strategy. 

   As Hubie furiously explained things, a frantic Bernard King pulled Rick Pitino aside. In essence, he pleaded with the assistant coach to tell Hubie to just get him the ball and for everyone else to clear out.  

   Pitino quickly relayed the message.  

   “Okay, listen up,” Hubie instructed. “Run my stuff for 15 seconds, then give the ball to Bernard and clear out.” 

   For the record, Bernard’s shot counted for two. 

   As Yul Brynner might have said, “That’s why the Knicks were hailed, ‘The King and Them.’ “ 

                            ****** 

   Carmine Calzonetti was a starting guard for St. John’s in the late ‘60s on a team that boasted three future pros—Billy Paultz, John Warren and Joe DePre. 

   He recently recalled a story that starred (imagine that!) Kareem, whom, before relocating eight years ago, lived down the block from him on 120th street in upper Manhattan, otherwise known as Harlem.  

   “I knew Kareem since college and we would often see each other in the neighborhood,” Carmen said. “He did not have a car so, occasionally, he’d ask me for a lift for small errands.” 

   One errand entailed buying a TV for Kareem’s guest room since he was expecting visitors. So Carmen picked him up and they went to a Best Buy on 86th Street. They found parking nearby (it was Sunday, after all). 

   “We walked into the store, and I think everyone in it swarmed Kareem, and began taking photos, a good 40 people. 

   “Kareem kept his head down, picked up the TV and went to the cashier. He put the TV on the checkout counter, and handed the woman his Black Amex card. The crowd continued to surround him, along with the store manager who asked if a photo could be taken of both of them. 

   “The woman at the register picked up the card, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Do you have any identification?’  

                            ****** 

  There’s a common theme here, or not... 

   Definition of a schoolyard player: A guy who doesn’t want teammates involved in his game at all. For instance, if you offer him a screen, he’ll go the other way into traffic, as Kobe did in his first (‘98) All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden. Karl Malone set a pick for him and he waved him out of the way. 

   Johnny Johnson contended Sonics’ teammate Freddie Brown was ambidextrous. Downtown Puget Sound denied it. “I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous.”  

   Dick Motta claimed, “The worst thing to get in an NBA game is a 20-point lead at halftime. No one listens to you in the locker room.” 

   And then there was a pre-Covid game in which the fans coached poorly, the coaches did a poor refereeing job and the players performed as if it were a spectator sport.  

   Don Nelson was asked about George Johnson’s condition when he reported to the Bucks’ camp. Was the St. John’s forward out of shape or overweight? “He was so out of shape,” Nelson said, “I don’t think he could’ve even walked during the summer.” Johnson claimed he came in underweight. “He couldn’t have done anything physical,” Nelson contended. “and that includes eating.”  

   Walt Frazier took a vow of silence when the New York media turned on him at the end of his time with the Knicks.  Ira Berkow, author of ‘Rockin’ Steady’, the biography on Frazier, suggested to Clyde he talk to reporters the following season. “Just don’t read what they write.”  

   Kurt Rambis was the only starter in NBA history who also played at garbage time. 

   Larry Costello was only a perm and a pick away from relating to his players while coaching the Bucks and Bulls. What would you expect from a guy who got his hair cut in a subway barber shop? 

                            ****** 

   I apologize for what’s coming next. 

   Unlike the vociferous masses, I didn’t get upset with Tree Rollins for munching on Danny Ainge’s finger while tarmac-fighting during a (1983) Hawks-Celtics playoff game. 

   That was considered perfectly acceptable and very manly in my neighborhood. It only went to prove that Tree’s bite was worse than his bark. 

                            ****** 

   Cotton Fitzsimmons used to say, “I never beg for blackjack when I go to Vegas, I just want to win. Just once I’d love to be in position to say my club stunk in posting our 59th win.” 

   While Spud Webb was in the league, 37 or so centers were drafted, and he dunked on every one of them. 

   My description of Chris Mullin during his playing days: poetry in place. 

   During a long-ago exhibition season, the Bullets were losing big late in the game when Motta inserted Nick Weatherspoon. Almost at the scorer’s table, Spoon doubled back in his distinctive manner, backpedaling to Motta. “Want me to stay with the offense, coach, or do you want me to get some points?”  

    Maurice Lucas maintained the refs were so atrocious one game, “I hated them despite the fact all the calls went my way.”  

   When Cavalier Cliff Robinson beat the Pistons one night with a three-pointer at the buzzer, teammate World B. Free exclaimed, “That shot was so good, for a moment, I thought I took it.” 

   I’ve always questioned the IQ of players who exploit opponents with a low threshold for defense right from the jump. If they had any smarts, they’d kill them softly and milk them for all their worthlessness. 

   Bill Russell on how the Celtics managed to amass so many titles in the ‘50s and ‘60s: “You must like each other and you must tolerate each other.” 

   April 5, 1984, against the Jazz in Las Vegas, the night Kareem Abdul-Jabbar surpassed Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA’s all-time scorer, everything he wore became a collector’s item. His uniform went to Springfield’s Hall of Fame, his Adidas sneakers went back to the company, Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss requested and procured Kareem’s goggles and PR director Josh Rosenfeld got his jock.

Trailblazers

By Peter Vecsey

Since this is Black History Month, what better time to offer some prehistoric history?

     The Pride and Prejudice (more of the latter, unfortunately) of Chuck Cooper, Nathanial ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, Earl Lloyd and Hank DeZonie have (finally) been revisited and revered.

     Cooper (2019) and Clifton (2014, players) along with Lloyd (2003, contributor) have each been summoned to Springfield.

     While these fine gentlemen were indeed the league’s Black forefathers, they were not the first players of color in professional basketball.

     Allow me to introduce the forefathers of the forefathers (the eightfathers?).

     If the names William ‘Pop’ Gates and William ‘Dolly’ King do not resonate with the readership, well, that’s why I’m here.

     In the primordial period before the NBA, there was the NBL (National Basketball League), formed in 1937, and the BAA (Basketball Association of America), which began in ‘46.

     The latter consumed what was left of the former, eventually morphing into the NBA after the 1948-49 season.

     Gates, a New York City (Benjamin Franklin) star, made his pro reputation for the badass barnstorming New York Renaissance...Rens for you harried headline writers out there.

     All the Rens accomplished was a pre-UCLA 88-game winning streak, against all teams, black or white, in 1932-33.

     Though a bit underaged to participate in that pillaging, Gates’ exploits were nonetheless so explosive, both he (1989) and the Rens (1963) were also given Hall passes.

     Do yourself and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar a favor. Get a hold of his ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ tome to learn a whole lot more about the Renaissance and their impact on, and contribution to, the game.

     After the Rens, Gates, according to his Naismith bio, ‘played for a handful of teams and helped to integrate the National Basketball League in 1946 as a member of the Buffalo Bisons/Tri-Cities Blackhawks’.

     Coincidentally (or not), the NBA chose the 1946 birth of the BAA for the start of its version of pro basketball, hence a 75th anniversary commemoration planned for sometime soon, I gather. My ballot for the Top 75 is in the mail (or not).

     Gates’ two NBL seasons saw him average 7.6 and 11.2 points per game, but his contribution, it says here, filled up a more important stat sheet.

Gates passed away in December of 1999, at the age of 82.

     King was also a NYC (Alexander Hamilton) high-school stalwart. A three-sport (basketball, baseball, football) threat at Long Island U.—where Naismith Hall of Famer Clair Bee coached basketball and football—Al Gore’s internet swears King played full games of both. The Very Same Day!

     The late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s saw LIU as the gold standard of college cage, well before the scandal (but we’re leaving that alone here).

     Back to King, who left LIU hoops (where he teamed briefly with a pretty fair baseball player, Larry Doby, the American League's first black player in 1948), making his mark with the Rens before another Hall of Fame coach, Les Harrison, signed him for the NBL’s Rochester Royals in 1946.

     His numbers (four ppg in 41 games) belied his bigger-picture benefaction of helping to integrate (there’s that word again) the game.

     King died in January, 1969, age 52.

     If you haven’t figured out today’s lesson plan as of yet, ponder this...

     With all due respect to the Fearsome Foursome firm of Cooper, Clifton, Lloyd and DeZonie, shouldn’t Gates and King have been ordained as the professional’s first African-American players? 

     I mean, they participated in a pro league during the same season (1946) the NBA has recognized as the beginning of organized, play-for-pay basketball, yet there’s nothing in the way of remembrance or remuneration-- statistical inclusion, pension, whatever.

     The overdue acknowledgment doesn’t have to come during Black History Month. Any month is fine by me.

     Afterthoughts: 

      Dolly King used to referee in the CHSAA. Once I distinctly remember, he officiated a JV game of mine at Archbishop Molloy.

     Pop Gates and I spoke often during my six years coaching at Rucker Park. Told me many stories about the Rens, and took me to meet their founder, Bob Douglas, at his Harlem apartment in 1972, the year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Douglas was born in Saint Kitts (Gates in Decatur, GA), but moved to New York at a young age. Nicknamed the "Father of black Professional Basketball", he owned and coached the Rens from 1922 to 1949, guiding them to a 2,318-381 record. 

     "What was Harlem like when you were growing up?" I asked Douglas, who died in 1979.

      "There was no Harlem when I was growing up."  

Nick Curran

By Peter Vecsey

There’s nothing I like better than telling an untold story… other than to hear stories unheard. 

Like the ones below from Nick Curran, who was the NBA’s director of public relations from 1969-‘76. Walter Kennedy, the league’s first commissioner, (predecessor Maurice Podoloff was actually its president from 1946-‘63) hired the 28-year-old whose ambition was to become a major league broadcaster, but instead became a sportswriter. 

     Though having known Curran since the mid-70s, when I began covering the NBA full time after a half dozen seasons of profusely bleeding red, white and blue, I didn’t find out until yesterday we shared the same smudged profession. Both began our careers at 16. He wrote stories (“Someone quit and I told the sports editor I could do the job.”) and handled racing agate for the Worcester Telegram, New England’s sixth largest newspaper. 

     As a high school junior, I lucked into a job as a statistician in the New York Daily News (largest circulation in the country) sports department during the entire baseball season; five days a week, the 3-11 shift. It took me 12 years, two as an Army draftee, to attain status as a sportswriter.  

     Curran grew up in Norwood, Massachusetts and attended Boston University; its radio station was run by students. By senior year, he’d become sports director. Meeting Jesse Owens was a big thrill . Interviewing Ted Williams in 1961, the year after he’d retired, left him in a trance. It took place before an exhibition game at Boston University Field, the home of the Braves before they moved to Milwaukee. 

     “I brought along a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder,” Curran recalled with delight. “I was hoping for a one-minute answer to use on the show that evening. I asked Mr. Williams to talk about the science of hitting. He gave me 30 minutes.”  

     Upon graduation, Curran went from chronicling schoolboy sports and Worcester Tech College for one year to covering the Celtics. Highly regarded Phil Jackman left to join the Baltimore Sun, thus creating the coveted assignment. It culminated with Boston’s 7-game Finals win over the Lakers in 1966. 

      Curran remembers calling Red Auerbach to ask if K.C. Jones, who had defended Jerry West as well as humanly possible, would play in Game 7.  K.C. had hurt his knee, necessitating a brace, made by the team doctor. 

     “If he can walk, he’s gonna play!” Auerbach growled.

      “Sounds a little bit like Red, huh?” Curran noted.  

      How did Curran feel interviewing Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and the rest of Boston’s Hall of Fame cast at such a young age and with so little experience? I wondered. 

     “It was a joy talking to them one-on-one, and writing stories I knew people would be reading the next morning over a cup of coffee. I usually had about 45 minutes to organize my thoughts and knock out a story in time for the last edition. It taught me discipline.” 

     Nine seasons later, the Warriors upset the Bullets in the title round, beating them four straight. The two head coaches, K.C. and Al Attles, were black. What’s more, so were their assistants, Bernie Bickerstaff and Joe Roberts? 

     In 2017, Curran interviewed Attles for an online story. “I asked him if he remembered the reaction, if any, when he coached against K.C. in the 1975 Finals, making history? It was the first time both head coaches in the Finals were black. Al said, ‘Nothing happened. It was no big deal. No one asked me about it.’” 

     I can vouch for that. I covered that series; I didn’t hear a question about it, or see any mention of it in the papers. To the credit of everyone on the scene, four-for-four black coaches on the sideline went unreported, if not completely unnoticed. 

When Kennedy hired Curran June 1, 1969, there were six people in the league office: the commissioner, assistant to the commissioner Carl Scheer, who left in 1970 to run the ABA Carolina Cougars (replaced by Simon Gourdine), office manager Connie Maroselli, Helen Marie Burns, Kennedy’s secretary, and receptionist Gail Davey. 

     Dolph Schayes was the part-time head of the referees; he had no office. There was no security; it was farmed out to different agencies. There also was no licensing or marketing departments/employees.

    “We would do whatever it took to get the job done,” Curran said. The NBA had six lines. “You’d think the number would have a few zeroes at the end, but that would’ve cost extra. I love Walter, but he was very frugal ‘cause he didn’t have a lot.”

     When Kennedy left in ’75, he was given a ten-year, $500,000 severance package, 50G per year, Curran said. “When he became commissioner in ’63, he made $35,000. My salary was $15,000. I made $88 a week in Worcester.”

     Kennedy and Gourdine were lawyers. Both were involved in the authorization of trades, which meant understanding the language of contracts. Larry O’Brien took over June 1, 1975. He wanted nothing to do with approving trades, turning over full responsibility (almost) to Gourdine. Moreover, trades were restricted to business hours, and not on the weekend. 

      Gourdine happened to be on the west coast when Bucks’ GM Wayne Embry frantically called the league office Monday, June 16, 1975. He insisted on executing an immediate trade that would send Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--who’d covertly demanded a trade early in the ’74-75 season to either the Knicks or Lakers--and Walt Wesley to Los Angeles for Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers and Elmore Smith. 

     The reason for Embry’s heated rush to make the trade official: Bucks beat writer Bob Wolf was about to break the news that afternoon in the Milwaukee Journal. 

Curran and the receptionist were the only ones in an office that had tripled to 18. “I told Wayne I had the authority to sanction the trade.” Gail Davey was instructed to retrieve the contracts of the six players. A conference call was then convened. Embry was on the line for the Bucks to discuss the condition and salaries of each player, whereas play-by-play celebrity Chick Hearn, also a part of the front office, represented the Lakers.

    “My head was throbbing and I was sweating like never before,” Curran recounted. “I knew I was doing all the right things, but I was still scared to death I’d be fired.” 

     Curran made sure there were no hidden clauses, like a no-trade or bonuses. Physicals were required in case a team was trying to pawn off damaged goods. It couldn’t become legal until each player signed three copies before the trade, one for the team, one for the agent and one for the player.

     “When we announced it to AP and UPI, our six lines lit up and stayed lit. The reaction nationwide was identical: How can the NBA allow Milwaukee to destroy its team?” 

                                     *****

     A fundamental function of Curran’s job was visiting teams and speaking to front office personnel, as well as the local media. Often that meant being on radio before a game or at halftime. Sometimes it meant doing a post-game show. 

     In 1972, Curran was in old Chicago Stadium. Six minutes into the game, Norm Van Lier got assessed two technical fouls within seconds of each other as a result of cursing out the refs, slamming the press table with his hand and generally being out of control. 

    Following the Bulls’ loss, famed play-by-play announcer Jim Durham invited Curran to be a guest on his two-hour studio call-in show. The first voice on the line was Van Lier, who, not profanely, aimed his wrath at the officials, in great detail, for close to 15 minutes. 

     The lingering suspicion is Durham’s producer reached out to Stormin’ Norman. For the remainder of the show, Curran had to endure verbal attacks from an amped-up audience regarding the whistle blowers and the league for its alleged horrible hiring and training practices.

     Curran flew to New York the following day and reported what had happened to Kennedy. A tape was secured from WIND radio, and Van Lier was suspended one game and fined $500, the most allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time. 

      The next time Curran ran into Van Lier, Norm got back his money’s worth. 

      “He reamed me good.” 

                                      *****

      In 1969, Curran attended a Christmas party hosted by Dave DeBusschere at his Garden City home. He was standing near the door when Bill Bradley rang the doorbell. He was wearing a roman collar and a black suit.

     “Confessions will be held downstairs,” Bradley notified DeBusschere….”for the ladies.”

     Where would Bradley get a Roman collar and black suit like priests wear, you might wonder? Curran did. “He said he went to a supply store on Madison Avenue behind St. Patrick's Cathedral, and bought it just for the party.”

       Life after the NBA for Curran encompassed 28 years as a financial adviser with Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley. In 1975, he was ordained a Deacon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. In 2014, he earned a  Masters Degree in Journalism from the University of North Carolina.  

    During my educational conversation, he alerted me to his age (80) by stressing he was born in the same year and same month as DeBusschere. 

     He and Eileen live in Santa Barbara. She grew up in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. As mentioned, he grew up in Norwood, MA, a short drive from Fenway Park. 

       “I married her anyway, 47 years ago. Best thing I ever did.”

                                *****

      From Hang Time to Prime Time, written by Pete Croatto, the NBA’s growth in the mid-70s to the mid-80s (Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA), reaped so many rave reviews from those eminently more eligible to recognize what’s worthwhile and worthless, triggered me to order a copy. 

     It’s meticulously accurate and detailed, friends testify, the product of interviewing 315 people, including this correspondent. 

      While I impatiently anticipate the mid-February delivery date, Croatto kindly advanced me some David Stern anecdotes.   

     It's Fantastic was based on...a joke:

     Most basketball fans of a certain age know the NBA's "It's Fantastic" ad campaign to promote the league. What was a staple for 1980s NBA fans was David Stern's creation, according to Barbara Ward, an administrative assistant in the league's office in the early 80s.

     Stern had a go-to joke: A man is asked how he's doing. The man replies, "I'm doing faaan-tastic." Again and again and again. Finally, he delivers the punch line after his go-to phrase: "That's what I say when I'm bullshitting you."

     Ward left for Harvard Law School after the inside joke became a national ad campaign. When she ran into Stern, she mentioned the commercials.

     "David, pretty funny."

     Stern winked.

     Saving a television deal: 

     In 1978, then NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien had reached a handshake deal with CBS Sports president Bob Wussler on a new television deal. Everything was fine--until Bob Wussler resigned. New president Frank Smith did not share Wussler's enthusiasm. In fact, he wanted the NBA off his network. 

     A meeting was arranged. O'Brien and his trusted number-two man, Stern, met with Smith and Neal Pilson, director of business affairs at CBS Sports. Wussler delivered the news to O'Brien, who was agog. We had a deal with Wussler. What's going on?

     Shortly after the verdict was dropped, Stern asked Pilson to meet him outside. Stern proceeded to get into Pilson's face, and put a finger in his chest. "You can't do this to Larry! You can't do this to the NBA. You had a deal. You have to stay with it. We need to continue on CBS!"

    Pilson walked away on Stern's side. Wussler's decision was tabled, and Pilson convinced Smith to keep the NBA on CBS--and away from national irrelevance. Stern's plea for mercy bought the NBA time that it desperately needed. 

     The soft side:

     Much has been written about David Stern's tenacity and his combativeness, but what really surprised me was how devoted he was to his employees. 

     Stern and Don Stirling, a longtime employee at NBA Properties, had stayed late at the NBA offices before they were picked up for a flight to Los Angeles. It was the kind of day that demanded rest at any possible moment. Stirling and Stern got in the car. Stern started calling doctors; he wanted to help an NBA employee who had been diagnosed with serious illness. 

     Rick Welts, now the president and COO of the Golden State Warriors, saw the kinder side of David Stern when he started at the NBA in the early 1980s. He'd spend hours chasing down corporate sponsors for the league only to be told no repeatedly. Hard days led to nights where he arrived home in despair. But "Uncle David" would inevitably call, offering encouragement and care. The next morning, Stern would have more leads, more enthusiasm. 

     Compassion and combativeness defined David Stern, in my opinion, underlines Croatto.  

 

A Game Grows in Brooklyn

By Peter Vecsey

After being interviewed last week by Craig Boothe regarding his documentary ‘Ball Side Middle,’ I decided to bequeath him today’s space.  

   Boothe, who proudly possesses a journalism degree, explains where he came from and what he wants the doc to achieve.

   Below are the 33 players, many household names, who expanded on their schoolyard, high school and college reputations by joining NBA rosters for a year, part thereof or much more. The accounts, assessments and stories regarding their games are the upshot of what I’ve seen over the years or been told in the last 24 hours. 

    “As a young man growing up in Brooklyn, I was introduced to the game of basketball at the age of seven,” Boothe begins. “The place was Flatbush, home of fabled Foster Park, which was highlighted in “Heaven is a Playground,” a book written in 1976 by Rick Telander. It received national acclaim and was considered one of President Obama’s favorite reads.

   “Early on,” Boothe continues, “I was attracted to the game’s demanding competition and was fortunate to travel throughout the boroughs while representing a P.A.L. team until 11. At 12, my life radically changed, as I was bussed from my predominately black neighborhood to Roy H. Mann Junior High. Numerous young black teens experienced the same plight as they sometimes were attacked, or had to run for their lives in these communities of hate.

   “High school was no different, as I was bussed from East New York, Brooklyn to South Shore High School, in the Canarsie neighborhood. Despite the daily racial episodes, many of us who traveled from East New York, Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant, focused on basketball. It became our gift. The gift of distraction and survival! The gift that kept giving! We learned under duress and through commitment to contend and thrive at the highest level.

   “From the period of 1974-86, Brooklyn, by all versions and visions, was considered the world’s epicenter of basketball. During this time, we produced some of the top high school teams in the country, Lafayette (1974-‘75), Canarsie (1975-‘76), Boys and Girls High School (1978-‘79), Nazareth High School (1978-‘79), Xaverian High School (1980-‘81) and Alexander Hamilton (1980-‘81). 

   “Albert King led the way early in the decade. He was named national Player of the Year in 1976-‘77, and was a 3-time All-America. Chris Mullin, Class of ‘81 and Pearl Washington, Class of ‘83 became McDonald’s All-Americans as well.

   “Brooklyn’s greatest accomplishment during this cross-over decade was the 32 players who made NBA teams. With all of this success, history somehow skipped over that outstanding era. There was very little film documentation of this rousing realization. 

   “As someone who played and was intimately involved during this era, I fervently feel now the time is ripe to transmit the story. A story crammed with challenges and adversity young black males confronted. A story about how the gift of basketball existed for all to seize, and how it shielded many from drugs, gangs, racism and socio-economic environments designed for us to fail,” Boothe emphasizes. 

   “Ball Side Middle is a drill learned by many of us in Brooklyn, in my case, St. John’s Recreational Center.  It metaphorically describes how the ball saved our lives. The side were our supporters. In the middle is where it remains in our core.

   “The documentary is a four-part series that escorts viewers through our Brooklyn journey. As the narrator, storyteller and executive producer, I have been blessed to partner with James Rapelyea, filmmaker and editor, as well as Melanie Boothe and Eric Short, assistant producers. Our passionate project is scheduled for completion in early spring of 2021.

  Those who played at Brooklyn High Schools from 1974-1986 and wore an NBA uniform:

   1. Chris Mullin (Xaverian): Indoors or outdoors, day or night, put a ball in his hands and he was ready to score at will. “He was so good, he got me a scholarship,” Mark Jackson went on to explain. Lou Carnesecca and his top assistants came to eyeball Mullin when the senior played at Bishop Loughlin. Jackson started as a sophomore but was un-recruited until that night. In the midst of Mullin’s domination, Jackson caught the attention of St. John’s contingent. “Chris was the best the city had to offer and he toyed with us the whole game.”

2. Bernard King (Fort Hamilton): High school was no different than college or the pros. The original ‘Game Face’ played like a gangster. He didn’t back down from anybody. He knew what he wanted to do and did it without a hitch. When King scored he took it right to you and then look at you like, “Don’t you know better?” And he got fouled, he’d street-walk to the free-throw line. Like walking down the street with a swagger. Two guys might be thinking of mugging him, see that walk and say, “No, not that one.” It was that intimidating attitude that carried over to the court. 

“My older brother, Kevin, took me to some court when I was about eight or nine,” Jackson vividly remembers. “Bernard, Fly (Williams) and (World B) Free were playing. I stayed glued to the fence the entire afternoon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Couldn’t believe there was better talent in the entire world.” 

3. Albert King (Fort Hamilton): He was good so early he was far above everyone his age and way ahead of his time. All the hype he got was deserved. He handled the ball so well he was a like a 6-6 center playing guard. It was impossible to sustain that level of dominance and stand out every time he jumped a level. Had he flaunted his brother’s air of confidence, Albert could’ve taken a hit one night and come back the next day and given what he just got and more. 

4. Vinnie Johnson (FDR): Maybe the all-time most unappreciated player, and might very well be the best sixth man in the business. Overshadowed by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars on two Pistons’ championships, Vinnie had opponents quaking when he replaced one of them. That’s how good he was. That’s how quickly he could impact a game as soon as he entered it. He sacrificed a lot to help the team win and was not the type to complain. He just got it done! Nicknamed ‘Who’ by his teammates, Vinnie would show up at practice and exclaim, “Who am I gonna fuck up today, you Isiah, or you, Joe? 

5. Eric Johnson (FDR). Long arms like his brother, he was a solid defender and shooter, but didn’t have Vinnie’s unshakable assurance. 

6. John Salley (Canarsie): Regardless of what level, he’d run the floor and finish, then sprint back to the other end and punch a shot into the stands. Rebounding repute suffered playing alongside relentless retriever, Dennis Rodman. As an NBC colleague of mine, John’s work ethic was not exactly exemplary. A month or so into his rookie year as an ‘Insider’, he was told by producer Ricky Diamond he needed to prepare more for telecasts. “You gotta make more phone calls before coming to the studio,” Diamond admonished. John’s response was landmark. “You don’t pay me enough to make phone calls!” he declared. Thereafter, I referred to him as ‘Long Gone Salley.’

7. Geoff Huston (Canarsie): He was the real deal! When he played in the Pro Am League one summer with Wes Matthews, Sam Worthen and Hollis Copeland, Geoff averaged 63 points. He knew how to score and, at the same time, knew how to get everyone involved. What’s more, he boasted the kind of maturity only gained from playing with older players from an early age. 

Afterthought:  The Mount Rushmore of Knicks/Cavaliers guards, along with Butch Beard, Jim Cleamons and some guy named Clyde.

8. World B Free (Canarsie): Had to be the highest leaper when taking a jump shot. A lot of people thought he was selfish, but was a true professional and easy to get along with wherever he played, which is why he’s still working, still smiling and still saying funny things for the 76ers after all these years. Free’s game was different than anyone you can name. Everything about him represented Brooklyn. The way he carries himself, you know right away he’s not from Philly.

Afterthought: Free’s trade from the Sixers to the then-San Diego Clippers for a No. 1 pick that became Charles Barkley, earned him eternal gratitude from every Atlantic City pit boss.

9. Mel Davis (Boys): An enforcer until he reached the pros, then lack of size for the macho power position betrayed ‘Killer.’ More of a defender and rebounder than a scorer, a go-away-from guy, if you will.          

10. Lenny Wilkens (Boys): If not for a New York City Jewish couple, Gloria and Shelly Kaplan, he may not have gone anywhere worthwhile as a Hall of Fame player and coach. Played very few games as a HS senior as the team’s star was Tommy Davis, who’d win two National League batting crowns with the Dodgers. Shelly Kaplan, a Holy Cross roommate of Joe Mullaney, pushed the Friars’ head coach to give Lenny a scholarship after seeing him in a playground tournament, warrants HOF honorable mention as a scout. Wilkens always got into Bob Cousy harder defensively than any other opponent and felt slighted because Cousy got far more recognition. 

Afterthought: His career was so distinguished, he gets a pass for coaching the Knicks during Anucha Browne Sanders/Sexual Harassment Hacienda halcyon days.

11. Connie Hawkins (Boys): Paved the way for Julius, MJ and LeBron. For those who weren’t lucky enough to see the Hawk play, check out his highlights and you get his whole game over his whole career. Only Walter Kennedy knows how magnificent Connie would’ve been had the NBA commissioner not shamefully banned him from the league for seven seasons due to gambling blather. 

Afterthought: He’s the reason I swore unwavering allegiance to the Pittsburgh Pipers.

12. Pearl Washington (Boys & Girls): People still talk about a game at ‘Sole In the Hole’ in which he snared a rebound, dribbled the length of the blacktop through everyone except the opposing center, who was waiting above the rim…and Pearl dunked on him!! “Game Over!” Sam Worthen, who was pro age at the time, excitedly recounted yesterday. Washington was in high school. “The fans ran onto the court and went wild, as if it was the last shot of the game. It was the second quarter. They wouldn’t stop celebrating, high-fivin’ and dancing, wouldn’t leave the court. Like a shot at the buzzer. We stayed half an hour and finally gave up and went home.”

 ‘Pac Man’ ate up everyone in high school and college, but didn’t work nearly hard enough on his game and body as a pro. Hence, his career was over after two seasons with the Nets and one with Miami. Pearl admitted as much to me years later when we met to discuss his book he wanted me to write. 

“Pearl was an incredible talent, absolutely could do it all in high school and college,” Mark Jackson lauded. “He broke Georgetown’s press singlehandedly!!” Jackson’s first college choice was Syracuse. The thought of playing before 30,000 fans was a decisive factor in that decision. On his visit to Syracuse, he told Jim Boeheim and Brendan Malone he was prepared to accept a scholarship. “I wouldn’t come if I were you,” the head coach replied. “We have Pearl coming.”

Before Pearl had even enrolled, Jackson said, “He had a book and sneaker deal. That’s how good he was.”

13. Larry McNeill (Westinghouse): The Roadrunner did everything easily and briskly. He could get you 20 points and ten rebounds in 14 minutes, but not often enough to keep him from shuffling from team-to-team (12 pro outfits in and out of the country) during his 11-season career. Though McNeill still owns the playoff record for perfect field-goal attempts (12) in a game as a Kansas City-Omaha King in 1975, his defining moment, it says here, was representing the New York Post in the 1976-77 dunk competition. He had been cut by the Nets, but was still very much alive in the NBA’s first (shabbily managed) jamboree. I arranged for him to wear a Post T-shirt for two rounds, at which time the Warriors signed him as a free agent. Darnell Hillman, also functioning as a free agent, beat McNeill in the finale, staged at halftime of Game 5 (June 5) between the Blazers and 76ers. Hillman won $15,000. The Post paid McNeill 15G as well. For all the publicity I got the paper, I also should’ve pocketed 15G. 

14. Jim McMillian (Thomas Jefferson): All you have to know about him is the day he replaced Elgin Baylor in the starting lineup as a rookie, the Lakers started a 33-game win streak, still an NBA record, and went on to win the ’71-72 title. Pat Riley had to guard the bigger, stronger McMillian in practice throughout that season. At the outset, he figured it wouldn’t be that bad because Jim was playing so many minutes. He figured wrong. “He beat the shit out of me every time.” Riley related. 

15. Sidney Green (Thomas Jefferson): Had the whole package—muscle, hustle, rebounding and scoring—yet never attained star status. My theory? He was too nice.

16. Phil Sellers (Thomas Jefferson): Definitely big-time pro material but it never materialized.  He had no foreseeable flaws and was enforcer-tough. His game translated from playground to high school to college. Why did it stop abruptly in the pros? Was it lack of work ethic? Commitment? Was he married to the fellas? The street? The nightlife? Had/have no idea. 

17. Leroy Ellis (Thomas Jefferson): Enjoyed a long pro career, topped by his role backing up Wilt Chamberlain for the ’71-72 champions. Interestingly, Bill Sharman gave him decent daylight in the 33 straight victories, then kept him buckled to the bench the day it was snapped by the Lew Alcindor’s Bucks. The very next season, Ellis played for the 9-73 Sickers. Talk about career whiplash!

18. Billy Cunningham (Erasmus): There will never be a higher-caliber crew of forwards to play high-school ball at one time than Hawkins, Roger Brown and Billy C. Anyone who leapfrogged leagues twice—NBA to ABA and back to NBA--gets a presidential pardon in this space.

19. Armond Hill (Bishop Ford): Hard to find someone smarter Attended Princeton and eight seasons with four NBA teams despite averaging a mere 6.9 points and 4.7 assists. Coached Columbia for eight seasons without a single winning season (72-141), then accepted a scholarship as Doc Rivers’ assistant, which just ended after 17 years. 

20. Ken Charles (Brooklyn Prep): Played under control. Cool. HiQ. Oozed confidence. Remindful of a three-piece solid blue suit Walt Frazier. Replaced surgically-impaired Ernie DiGregorio in the Braves‘ starting lineup alongside Randy Smith. Loved coaching Earl Foreman, Sam Worthen and him at Rucker Park and value their friendships to this day.

21. Mike Dunleavy (Nazareth): A sixth-round draft pick (No 99) by the 76ers, he stuck around because Gene Shue probably liked the way he stuck his nose into tight situations knowing he was going to pay for it. Moreover, Mike played like a coach and became a poisonous three-point shooter.

Afterthought: Lone person to coach Lakers and Clippers [though Joe Mullaney coached LAL and Buffalo Braves]. If and when he takes over the LA Kings, Dunleavy will get a statue erected outside every Staples in North America.

22. Steve Bracey (Midwood): Know very little about him other than he won a title with the ‘75 Warriors, and thus a lifetime pass to the Cow Palace.

23. Stew Granger (Nazareth): He came to work every day, played like an underachiever, and proved he belonged he got as far as he got.  

24. Jerry Reynolds (Alexander Hamilton): Similar to Scottie Pippen, as in able to play 1, 2 or 3, great vision. Smooth as anyone you’ve seen come out of NYC. He was a successful pro, but I expected stardom. 

Afterthought: Ice was the third-leading scorer with ‘89-‘90 expansion Magic, and the only one who knows seamy underbelly of Matt Guokas.

25. Carey Scurry (Alexander Hamilton): A high riser with serious hops. Some blocked shots, his chest seemed like it was at the rim. Not much of a shooter. Nicknamed Moet. Bad habit earned him early exit. 

Afterthought: Scurry was Utah’s  second-round choice in ‘85, behind Karl Malone. One of them turned into a decent role player for few seasons.

26. Lorenzo Charles (Brooklyn Tech): A great team player. Would command a double team on the block. His ‘right place, right time’ tourney winner in ‘83 (North Carolina State over Houston) proved NCAA was both unscripted and unscrupled, if there is or isn’t such a word. 

27. Sam Worthen (Franklin K Lane):  Magic before Magic, as in heat size and understanding of the game. Extreme peripheral vision.  And1 dribbling and passing skills long before And1. “Me and Kenny Smith went up against his team in a summer tournament,” said Mark Jackson. “Neither one of us wanted to guard Sam.” Only flaw? People claimed he couldn’t shoot. I saw him shoot over many defenders from mid range. Worthen’s actual flaw was infrequently looking to shoot. 

28. Rolando Blackman (Grady): Just got better and more dependable every year, at every pressure level. Could not be outworked. I would applaud his Hall of Fame induction. 

29. Mark Jackson (Bishop Loughlin): Worthen says there are very few guys he would pay to see play and Mark’s one of them. “I loved watching his advanced passing and how he saw the floor. I would be in the stands and see what he saw, but he would do it.”

30. Sam Perkins (Tilden): Despite being drafted No. 4, one pick behind his North Carolina teammate, he was a very underrated talent. Bulls’ GM Rod Thorn told em, had Michael Jordan been picked No. 1 of 2, he would’ve selected Perkins No. 3.  One of the first big forwards you had to guard beyond the 3-point line.

31. George Johnson (New Utrecht): Played like a point guard as a center. Directed traffic. Offensive flowed through him. Posted up and made the correct play. Had the whole package. If only he’d been bad to the marrow like Bernard King. Thought he was much better all around than Bernard. But for what Bernard did, he didn’t have to be all around. “We don’t go to the Final Four if we don’t experience what he was giving us in scrimmages going into that season,” Jackson stated. “He’d show up at St. John’s and dominate Walter Berry and Bill Wennington.”

32. George Thompson (Erasmus): By far, he is the most overlooked player in Marquette (20.4) basketball history despite holding the school’s scoring record for 40 years while playing but three seasons. Teammate Dean ‘The Dream’ Meminger got all the headlines when Al McGuire’s squads were contending for titles, but the smart money wanted the ball in the sure hands of Thompson, who finished his pro career with the Bucks, with court about to be adjourned. His five ABA seasons (15.6) went equally unnoticed, basically because he had the misfortune to play for losing outfits. Still, when the ABA All Stars evenly battled the NBA All Stars at Nassau Coliseum in 1972, coach Al Bianchi made sure Thompson was in uniform.  

33. Larry Fogle (Boys): Had a lot of Bernard King in him. They were very similar. People distinctly remember him cutting out the number on his jersey, front and back, in a Citywide Tournament. The commissioner told him he couldn’t play. “If I don’t play, nobody plays,” Fogle threatened. He played the whole tourney. Guys like Bernard and Fogle let you know they ain’t backing down.

In honor of Fogle, we just cut the number at 33.

www.ballsidemiddledoc.com

Dražen Petrović: the Genius of Sibenik

By Esteban Abed at Interbasquet (Argentina)

Considered the best shooter in the history of European basketball, "Petro" dazzled in his short stint in the NBA with impecable ball control and court vision like few others.  During the 1980s, the NBA began to undergo an important transition at the international level with the arrival of great players from the European continent, a migration that was accelerated by the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. While some talents entered the league with a timidly, Dražen Petrović dominated European hoops, both with the national team (Ex Yugoslavia) as well as with KK Cibona of Zagreb (Croatia) and with Real Madrid of Spain. Nicknamed "the Mozart of basketball," the 1.97-meter-tall guard was characterized by having excellent handle, which allowed him to cover forward positions and even be used as a shooting guard. A fearsome player in one-on-one situations, in addition to having truly remarkable court vision and precision passing his game magnified his legend as a basketball legend.

After being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 60th pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, Petrović didn’t join the team until 1989, after an abrupt exit from Real Madrid that caused the immediate discontent of the Madrid fans.

In his Rookie season he did not have a good season, having to back up Clyde Drexler, "Petro" averaged just 7.6 points and 12.6 minutes per game in 77 games. In his second season things got even more complicated for the Croatian - during the first half of the regular season he played  in only 18 games out of 38. The franchise traded to New Jersey in a three-team trade that sent Walter Davis to Portland.

The Nets also used him sparingly early on, but gave him plenty of playing time and his scoring average improved  to 12.6 points per game. Averaging 20.5 minutes in 43 games, he had one of the best points-per-minute ratios in the league. Dražen worked diligently on his outside shooting, often staying after games to work on his long range shooting. The Croatian's outside shot gave him the opportunity to start the next season and his ppg average jumped to 20.6 points per game. He began to gain recognition throughout the league as one of the best outside shooters in the NBA - making 123 of 277 3-point attempts that season, ranking second in the NBA with a 44.4 percentage. Petrović also led the Nets in shooting from the field (50.8) and free throws (80.8). In the 1992 offseason, Dražen returned to his homeland to lead newly independent Croatia to a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics and provide the only, albeit brief, scare to the United States' Dream Team throughout. the tournament. In the gold medal round, Croatia took a 25-23 lead against the Dream Team before falling 117-85.

His numbers in the NBA improved even more in 1992-93. In addition to leading the Nets in scoring (22.3 points per game), he set the pace for the team with a field goal percentage of 51.8 and a field goal percentage of 44.9 from three-point range. The media voted him to the All-NBA third team at the end of the season. The fans loved his enthusiasm and energy, and his coaches admired the fact that he spent the offseason time improving his game, especially his defense. After the Nets lost in the first round of the 1993 playoffs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, "Petro", unhappy with New Jersey management, told reporters that he would likely accept a two-year offer to play professional baskeball in Greece. These statements caused tension between him and his teammates, and the Nets did not renew his contract. However, it was later learned that the franchise was waiting for his return after his commitment to the Croatian national team to offer him a contract that was only going to be surpassed in numbers by the one Michael Jordan had received.

In the last tilt of the qualifying tournament in Poland, Petrović scored 30 points and instead of traveling to Munich, Germany by plane with the rest of the squad, he decided to take a detour by car to visit his girlfriend. On a rainy afternoon on June 7, 1993, one of the most tragic losses in the basketball world would take place - Dražen Petrović was killed in a car accident when a truck crossed into the path of his car in Denkendorf, Germany. 

According to reports from the Ingolstadt police, the truck driver tried to avoid a collision with another car and lost control, crossing into Petrović's lane which was being driven by his girlfriend, Klara Szalantzy. Visibility that day appeared to be very poor and Petrović was not wearing a seat belt. Dražen Petrović passed away at the pinnacle of his NBA career, causing great pain around the world. His brother declared in the New York Daily News: “It is difficult for you to imagine it here in America, because you have so many great players. But we are (for Croatia) a country of four million. Without him, basketball takes three steps back." Chuck Daly, coach of the New Jersey Nets said in a Newark Star-Ledger report: “You couldn't have wanted a better teammate.” He added, “He was so talented, he played very hard and he knew how to lead by example."

Sam Bowie, Nets center said: "Even if you were a fan of another team, you could not help but to be impressed by him." In late 1993, the Nets retired Petrović's No. 3 uniform in tribute. Another lasting legacy left behind by “the Genius of Sibenik” is the Dražen Petrović Trophy awarded to the MVP of the McDonalds Championship, the series between the NBA Champion and the European Champion. David Stern, NBA commissioner at the time, paid him a great tribute: “Dražen Petrović was an extraordinary young man and a true pioneer in the world sport of basketball. An enduring part of his athletic legacy will be that he paved the way for other international players to compete successfully in the NBA. His contributions to the sport of basketball were enormous. We are all proud to have met him.”